Luigi Pirandello's Enrico IV is enjoying a revival. There's a production running now at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, translated by Richard Nelson and directed by the company's artistic director, and an independent film company is shooting an adaptation of the story for the BBC. I wonder if either is as entertaining as the translation by Marshall W. Mason that's now racing across ASU's tiny Lyceum stage.
Pirandello, a Nobel Laureate in literature, is among the great figures of 20th-century European theater, and his complex tale of truth and identity has been smartly unraveled here by another celebrity of the stage. Director Mason, whose work has been awarded four Tonys, two dozen Tony nominations and six Obies, reportedly couldn't find a version of Pirandello's drama he wanted to direct. His translation, redrafted from the original, includes an unwritten character who neatly untangles the piece's tricky point of view.
It's a trick that makes one of Pirandello's most complex plays more accessible and satisfying. The author's shifting story line, which draws on the life of the 11th-century Roman emperor, explores several of Pirandello's favorite themes, most notably the conflict between life and art, and the truth about our own identity. The story moves back and forth between the 11th century and the recent past (probably 1930s Italy), where we meet a group of actors who describe to a new arrival the play they're enacting: Twenty years earlier, their master (whose name we never learn) and several friends were riding to a masquerade ball they'd planned. The party's other hosts were the Countess Matilda, with whom the young master was in love, and her suitor, the Baron Belcredi. The master, dressed as Henry IV, was thrown from his horse and suffered a head injury. He awoke convinced he was Henry IV, and his wealthy sister has since sustained her brother's madness with elaborate sets, costumes and hired actors who support the charade.
On this particular day, Matilda, Belcredi and their young daughter arrive with a psychiatrist who plans to shock the young man out of his reverie. Their plan is a stunning disaster, thanks to some truths about "Henry's" madness.
Pirandello's story unfolds in lightning-fast changes, its dialogue peppered with numerous loud confrontations between people who aren't necessarily who they claim to be. The contrasts between the past and present, between reality and illusion, are endless, and it's a credit to Mason's skill that we, an audience raised on simpler story telling, can follow the action so effortlessly.
Mason has simplified Pirandello's point of view, and made his concern with "masked identity" quite literal in Julietta, a character he's written into the story. Julietta is (horrors!) a mime, her drawn-on face a metaphor, her invisible interaction with the players a sly reference to Pirandello's meta-theater, in which actors play actors. The "truth" enacted onstage is different for each character, but Julietta provides a silent bridge between their reality and our perception of it.
The delightfully loose-limbed Julietta, played by bree williams (yes, she does not capitalize her name), was so enchanting that I was willing to forgo my usual disdain for mimes. She was so much fun to watch that I was occasionally distracted from the action of the "real" players. But nothing could divert me from Greg London's captivating portrayal of "Enrico" -- not even the annoying reverberation of an outdoor disco party that was clearly audible throughout Enrico IV's first-night performance. Kinkily obsessed with unreality, London's Enrico conveys contempt and kindness with attractively haughty grandeur. Called on to shift maniacally from tenderness to rage, London tempers these lightning-quick changes with cool comic restraint.
With his talented cast and lucid translation, Mason has given us an Enrico IV that's both easy to follow and as ambiguous as its author intended. Pirandello's hazy conclusion is still crystal clear: What's insanity, anyway? And who are we to say?
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