Ethnic Theater - Jewish
Bohemian National Hall, Manhattan
In choosing the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612) as the hero (or anti-hero) of his current piece, playwright Edward Einhorn has taken on an enormous challenge. How to depict this “Rudolf II,” seen by historians as such a controversial figure? In a world more Medieval than Renaissance, this Catholic monarch was tolerant of Jews (and Protestants, too). In fact, he took on a “Converso,” a Jew converted to Catholicism, as his lover. It was a time when anti-Semitism was rampant, but Rudolf rose above the widespread bigotry.
Was he mad, depraved, visionary—or a mix of all three? Was he hopelessly disconnected from the world around him—or ahead of his time? In any event, endowed with the absolute power of office, he followed his own star.
History suggests that he was homosexual or bisexual (he had numerous affairs with both men and women, some of the latter claiming to have been impregnated by him). He was depicted as thoroughly preoccupied with sexual adventure and experimentation. As to his mental competence, historians have labeled him as bi-polar (he suffered from the bouts of “melancholy” so familiar to the Hapsburg line). In later years, retreating from the world to his own quarters, he would grow increasingly eccentric and isolated.
Yet there was another side to Rudolf. He was fascinated with the arts and proved to be a great patron, acquiring masterpieces such as those of Durer and Brueghel and compiling one of the great European art collections. He was also intensely interested in the sciences of the time—alchemy, astrology, astronomy. In those areas, he was not afraid to oppose the prevailing official Catholic view, supporting such astronomers as Tycho Brahe and Kepler.
Thus the raw material for the playwright, with its infinite possibilities. Einhorn handles his story well, but circumstances are against him in this production. Its venue—the Bohemian National Hall on Manhattan’s Upper East Side--is both good news and bad news. Though its Grand Ballroom, which has been turned into the Emperor’s bedroom, is indeed regal, with its long red carpet and imposing chandeliers, it creates performance problems. Viewers are seated on either side of the long narrow room, with players between. When actors are facing half the audience, their backs to the other half, dialogue is completely lost to those viewers. It is a tricky business for any director to deal with theater-in-the-round, a thrust stage or similar configurations. This time around, director Henry Akona has not solved the problem, if indeed there is a solution.
Yet the cast of nine manage some fine moments. Timothy McCown Reynolds acquits himself well as the hapless Rudolf, Yvonne Roen is particularly human and moving as Rudolf’s mistress Katerina, and Shelley Ray gives a chilling performance as the bigoted, conniving poet Elizabeth. Moreover, musicians and chorus add ambience to the scene and the Grand Ballroom itself provides an impressive setting,
Happily, Einhorn concludes his play with a positive view of Rudolf’s place in history. Though Rudolf’s lack of leadership led to disastrous wars, his tolerant views would usher in a new enlightened thinking, a promise for a future age. Yet this production does not do justice to this intriguing historical figure. Rudolf II, mad or not mad, deserves to have his loftier views echo clearly across the centuries.
-- Irene Backalenick
Mar. 30, 2010