Pirandello's Henry IV tells of a modern-day nobleman (David Skeist '02) who has, for the last 20 years, believed himself to be Emperor Henry IV of Germany. As the play opens, his one-time paramour Matilda (Karin Alexander '02) comes to visit "Henry" in his grotesquely medieval living-space. She brings her friend Baron Belcredi (Tom Price '02), her daughter Frida (Marianne Cook '02) and a psychiatrist (Matthew Carlson) who intends to study "Henry" and attempt to cure him. Matilda and Belcredi explain the scenario to the doctor and to us before entering Henry's masquerade along with the madman's attendants (Luvh Rakhe '01, Michael Katherine Haynie '99, Mimi Asnes '02, Morgan Goulet '00). After observing "Henry" in action, the doctor conceives a plan for curing his madness.
The central figure in all this is Henry. He is a dynamo, constantly moving in and out of his "reality," constantly challenging his audence's ideas of "onstage" and "offstage." His view of the world seems at first childlike--as the doctor notes--but it steadily gains momentum and substance, building up to an explosion in which Henry reveals the truth. He is not mad and has not been for several years; rather, he feigns insanity in order to "tear off the comic masks" from the faces of others and to "reveal all their trappings as mere disguises." For Henry, life is a play and we are all characters--characters that we create, both for others and for ourselves. As Henry sees it, the job of a madman is to awaken us to this fact, to "shake what you have painstakingly constructed within yourself...down to the very foundations." Yet even in his false madness, Henry is a deeply pathetic figure who is fully aware that the last 20 years of his life have been wasted.
The role of Henry requires a dynamic actor willing to take risks, and David Skeist is certainly that. In a spellbinding performance, Skeist captures the anger and the pathos of his character, seemingly without effort. He spares no vocal or gestural expense and succeeds in making Henry's lengthy monologues sing vibrantly. By the end of the second act, Skeist has made us look past his absurdly childish costume (which makes him look vaguely like Big Bird in drag) and see nobility and brilliance in his character. (Skeist was also extremely ill during Henry's run, but he nonetheless gave as fine a performance as I have ever seen from a Harvard student.)
Though her role involves fewer histrionics, Karin Alexander makes something equally special of Matilda. Her quiet strength and biting tongue make her irresistible, and we can easily believe that she is a woman Henry still obsesses over after 20 years.
The other leading roles are quite capably filled. Carlson plays the supercilious psychiatrist excellently; his haughty posture is such that he manages to look down his nose even at the towering Skeist. Price is similarly condescending as Baron Belcredi, weathering Matilda's insults and ruthlessly mocking Frida while always maintaining his panache. Cook brings great zest to the role of the attention-seeking Frida, and David Freeman '02 gives her fianc, the Marquis, an appropriately petulant reading. The four attendants are alternately hilarious and touching; Rakhe and Haynie are deliciously over-the-top throughout Act I, and both Asnes and Goulet have brief but priceless exchanges with Henry.
If there is one sour note to this production, it lies in the fact that the actors are not always well-served by the text. Director Mark Penney has chosen to use a translation by Eric Bentley; though the translation has many merits, its British-inflected dialogue sounds stilted when delivered with an American accent. Price and Carlson are particularly disadvantaged, since the awkward dialogue impairs their believability. (Karin Alexander, who speaks with a British accent, is the only cast member unaffected.)
This one dissonance aside, however, Pirandello's Henry IV remains a wonderful evening of theater. I hope the gentleman behind me thought so too.
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