Kings might appear to have the world at their feet, but more often than not they are unhappy people, and many are completely mad. Since they are generally born to the job (or cleverly marry into it), you can’t quite turn around and say, “People get the leaders they deserve,” as you might in a democracy, or in places where elections (not necessarily democratic) are held. But you can judge them nonetheless. You also can undermine them at times, and in certain cases even overthrow them — ideally before they undo you.
Two plays now running on Chicago stages — each flawed but intriguing and well-acted — give us portraits of the twisted men who would be (or are) kings, and all those who must suffer from their tirades, whims, power plays and delusions. Here is a closer look:
• “HENRY IV” [Through Nov. 13 in a Remy Bumppo Theatre production at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln. For tickets, $42.50 – $52.50, call (773) 404 – 7336 or visit www.RemyBumppo.org. Runs 1 hour and 50 minutes with one intermission. Somewhat recommended.]
The first thing you should know is that this is not Shakespeare’s “Henry IV,” but rather the rarely revived 1922 absurdist drama by Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello as translated and tweaked by Tom Stoppard. The story plays on the delusions of an aristocrat who suffered a traumatic brain injury from a fall off a horse while he was playing Henry IV (the Holy Roman Emperor, not the English king) in a pageant, and as a result comes to believe he truly is that king. What’s more, for the next 20 years, his family and unrequited love, aided by some actors-for-hire, try to sustain him and his delusions by carrying on an elaborate charade in a remote medieval villa where he is treated like (and behaves like) a moody, capricious royal.
The play, directed by Nick Sandys, unfolds at the moment a doctor is finally brought in to see if he can affect a cure. And before it’s all over the questions are these: Who is truly mad, and who is sane? Have “Henry’s” enablers lost their sanity (and even their lives) as a result of two decades of play-acting? Are we all just play-acting or way through life? And finally, did this aristocrat take a perverse pleasure in his madness, whether real or perceived? As it happens, a whole lot of cuckoos are flying over the nest here.
The first half of the play is dense, repetitive and full of references to historical characters and real-life relationships that quickly grow tedious. But there is one all-important reason to see this play and it is Mark Montgomery, the brilliant Chicago actor whose presence sets the stage on fire and conjures the many aspects of his character with a sort of Robin Williams-like genius for split-second flips of the mind. He is electrifying from start to finish, and easily earns his crown.
• THE LAST WIFE” [Through Dec. 18 at TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington. For tickets, $38 – $51, call (773) 281-8463 or visit www.timeline.com. Runs 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission. Somewhat recommended.]
You need look no further than our current electoral situation to understand why Canadian playwright Kate Hennig penned “The Last Wife,” a modern-dress look at the relationship between King Henry VIII and Katherine Parr, the last of his six wives, and the one who escaped the fates of the five earlier women who were divorced, executed or, in one case, died in childbirth.
When the two meet, Henry (Steve Pickering) is still full of strong-armed bluster but clearly has intimations of his aging, while Kate (AnJi White) is a sexy, strong-minded woman with an insistent young lover (Nate Santana). Though she understands she cannot deny Henry’s marriage proposal, she also has a shrewd sense of how to use sex, as well as her fierce intelligence and strategic wiles, to control him as much as possible. In addition, she makes the education and independence of his female children from other relationships — Mary (the intriguing Paola Sanchez Abreu), already a young woman, and Bess (Caroline Heffernan), still a girl — of utmost importance, while also tutoring his young son.
The TimeLine production, directed by Nick Bowling (and cast with notable diversity) is vividly acted, with the power couple at its center capable of true fireworks. Pickering captures Henry’s stormy nature, which grows even more ferocious when he senses a certain impotence, while White (so brilliant in Timeline’s “Sunset Baby”) easily commands the room, and the bedroom.
Hennig has written many bristling scenes, including some tension-filled yet tender ones. But overall her play (notably her first) tries too hard, so that its sexual politics and proto-feminist agenda often feel heavily telegraphed. On the other hand, it might just be a perfect reflection of the temper of our times.