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Theatre Journal 53.3 (2001) 493-495
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Enrico IV. By Luigi Pirandello. American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco. 7 April 2001.
Pirandello wrote Enrico IV in 1922 at the beginning of Mussolini's rise to power. The playwright was one of many Italians who believed the budding dictator would restore Italy to its former glory. Although the play's title character is not intended as a Mussolini figure, Enrico does walk the fine line between mad illusions of grandeur and the real abuse of power that such dictators exhibit. As with most Pirandello plays, reality versus illusion in the creation of identity is the fundamental concept of this work. If madness serves as a means to question the construction of reality, Pirandello understood this madness in intensely personal ways. After sixteen years of living with a mad wife and the subsequent suicide of their daughter, Pirandello institutionalized his spouse. In Enrico IV,madness is both an oppression and a liberation. Carey Perloff's ACT production played to both sides of this dichotomy. [End Page 493]
Perloff tackled the difficult task of crediting Pirandello's brilliant existential intellectualism while avoiding the dry result that faithful translations often produce. In its original Italian, this piece has humor, sexual force, and an ingenious schizophrenia that must be captured in translation if the work is to succeed on stage. ACT commissioned adapter and playwright Richard Nelson to incorporate these various elements, and in many ways he succeeded. Exposition is at a premium in Enrico IV, and Nelson pared this down without confusing the audience.
Perloff's actors handled the complexity of Pirandello's play with sufficient subtlety. The unpredictability of Enrico's madness is what drives the action. If both his madness and the other characters' response to it appear too rehearsed, the action is deflated and the momentum lost. Deborah Dryden's costumes connoted 1920s Italian aristocracy and eleventh-century Bavarian dynasty. The play juxtaposes these two worlds, and set designer Ralph Funicello's trompe l'oeil painted scenery did justice to Italy's stagecraft traditions that enabled the period illusion of eleventh-century castle interiors. The men employed to support Enrico's mad identity as the Holy Roman Emperor were costumed to sustain this belief. The layering of time periods with costumes and personalities ensued as Donna Matilda, her daughter Frida, their respective lovers, and the psychiatrist arrived.
This visiting ensemble, in their fur coats, sunglasses, and high fashion regalia, evoked 1920s film stars. They were soon given replacement costumes and identities to aid the doctor in his attempts to shatter Enrico's delusion. Perloff made beautiful use of actor entrances and placement such that juxtapositions and parallels rendered physical proof of the split and collapse of time periods. Enrico stood, for example, with his medieval scepter in front of his younger portrait, which showed him in the same pose with a sword. Both the man and his portrait were in medieval costume. This first doubling was later echoed by Frida's fiancé, who replaced the portrait with his own "costumed" body. The "costumed" entrances of Frida and Matilda drew these same sorts of doubled parallels. Perloff made clear in physical terms what Nelson's text cut verbally from Pirandello's story.
The final image of a defeated Enrico, seated atop his throne with crown askew, marked an intertextual ghosting. Here was King Lear and all of history's monarchs who realized that the reality of their kingdom was a fiction, madness made from costumes, roles, and fictions of power. As Enrico states, "What we wear, we become." This is, of course, Pirandello's statement on life, theatre, and the moments when these two realities collide. Successful Pirandello productions depend largely on theatrical artifice and its subsequent disclosure. Enrico himself promotes this artifice within the drama of his madness. Actors who play his role carry the onus of this artifice and disclosure in their interpretation of Enrico's character. Marco Barricelli gave the bravura performance that this role demands, switching from rage to joy to remorse to humor instantaneously, as madness would suggest. And yet this...