Chicago Theater Review: PIRANDELLO’S HENRY IV (Remy Bumppo at Greenhouse Theater Center)

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by Lawrence Bommer on October 11, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


The Truman Show or The Matrix have nothing on Luigi Pirandello’s puzzle play Henry IV, a double-edged blast from the past (both 1921, its inception, and the 11th century, its pretend era). Imagine a man who, after suffering a concussion falling from a horse under suspicious circumstances, has for the last twenty years been frozen in time, presiding as a long-dead Holy Roman Emperor over a fake court. This guy becomes the strange survivor of the ultimate identity crisis. As in Groundhog Day, “Henry IV,” surrounded by sycophants dressed in medieval garb, is fated to live in a perpetual loop, endlessly repeating the pivotal scene where he beseeches the Pope for—and receives—forgiveness for past transgressions.

Mark L. MontgomeryThat’s the delicious premise of Remy Bumppo’s engaging season opener, smoothly staged by artistic director Nick Sandys. Sharply distilled in Tom Stoppard’s scintillating translation, Pirandello’s dark and thinking comedy—called the European Hamlet–questions the arbitrariness of identity, given the threats that truth can pose. It’s no absurdist abstraction: Pirandello wrote it from personal pain: his wife’s institutionalization for mental illness two years before. By losing sanity, he asks, was she safer than the rest of us?

Henry IV inevitably recalls Pirandello’s masterwork Six Characters in Search of An Author and Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, plays about supporting characters who bitterly discover their hitherto unquestioned dependency on an outside force. A two-act inquisition, Henry IV questions whether free will, as manifested in true love, is too big a burden when life is fraught with uncertainty and dogged by death. Better seek shelter in a controlled fantasy, a historical illusion, a set if repetitious role, or even an imaginary rabbit like “Harvey.”

Mark L. Montgomery

“A madman of sound mind,” our Henry (sardonic, sarcastic Mark Montgomery) has transformed a head wound into an elaborate escape. To remedy the authenticity he never achieved in his previous persona, this self-made king has gone from masquerade to madness. Discarding “the self we have chosen for ourselves,” he’s freed himself of the humiliation of real life, of being doomed to make it up as we go along. Pirandello calls it “l’umorismo,” the human condition, the imprisonment we call identity.

Chris Vizurraga, James Houton, Chris Amos, Clare Cooney

But all false things must come to an end. His family, who has aged 20 years where Henry seems the same, are ready to push their luck—and to make a big mistake. They introduce into Henry’s hermetically sealed “throne room” a psychiatrist (Noah Simon) whose “intervention” triggers tragedy. When Henry sees the exact image of his now-married love Matilda (Patrice Egleston) in her daughter (Clare Cooney), the past is suddenly too close for comfort for this half-hearted Hamlet. Abruptly, his wishful living is suddenly endangered—and he must strike out to preserve his artificial security. Finding a new way to go crazy, Henry resets his clock: He attacks the present to preserve the past.

Michael Turrentine, Mark L. Montgomery, Martel Manning, Patrice Egleston, Jake Szczepaniak

Though, reversing realities, Pirandello indulges in a bit too much subversive explication (as in explanation merged in exposition) in the second act, his tragicomedy hits home. You wonder, is Henry happier in his hallucination than we are with our very conditional freedom? Would a massive “do-over” cure our crises? The clash between Henry’s self-set situation and the chaotic courtiers and loved ones who surround him fuels this “historical” dramedy. As  the chuckles of many in the opening night crowd succumbed to nervous laughter, you felt that, yes, this joke’s on us.

Michael Turrentine, Mark L. Montgomery, Martel Manning, Patrice Egleston

Reveling in its clashing levels of reality, Sandys’ ensemble make merry mischief out of Pirandello’s fascinating disconnect. They turn a philosophical charade into a searing psychodrama. In mid-October it’s sinisterly appropriate for all the coming pretensions of Halloween.

Michael Turrentine, Mark L. Montgomery, Martel Manning

photos by Johnny Knight Photography

Mark L. Montgomery

Pirandello’s Henry IV
Remy Bumppo
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
Thurs – Sat at 7:30; Sun at 2:30
plus select Wednesdays and matinees
ends on November 13, 2016
for tickets, call 773.404.7336 or visit Remy Bumppo

for more theater info, visit Theatre in Chicago

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