nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 9, 2010
I have something more than soldiers. I have knowledge. I have beauty. That is the source of my power, the source where all the power of the universe lies.
So says Rudolf II, the mad Holy Roman Emperor who is the central character of this fascinating new play by Edward Einhorn. Rudolf has many preoccupations—indulging in sex with both genders is one of them—but perhaps none is so important as his need to sate an insatiable curiosity about the world around him. His greatest collection, he says, is his geniuses: he surrounds himself with artists, alchemists, astronomers, astrologers, and any number of authentic thinkers and authentic quacks. Money that, his advisers affirm, should be used to raise an army is used instead to pay this coterie of creators and to buy or build them what they say they need—everything from the new observatory required by Tycho Brahe to the printing costs for the slim volumes of poetry spewed out by an opportunistic medium named Elizabeth Weston. One of many questions posed by this play is: if you had essentially unlimited riches at your command, would you choose to squander them on science and art or on national defense? (Which answer is the truly mad one?)
Which is not to say that Rudolf II is not insane; while the sometimes over-the-top first act of Einhorn's play details the emperor's wild and diverse obsessions and passions, the exquisitely sad and touching second act shows us the ruins of the mind that had been capable of conceiving them. Rudolf's illness, possibly inherited (in a program note, Einhorn hypothesizes that he had bipolar disorder), is very real and genuinely tragic.
The play, which makes no claim to being a true historical account, is entirely true to the obsessions of its author. Key themes from Einhorn's work emerge here: the scientific quest for knowledge and the ways in which that can clash with faith; the mysterious path of mental illness; religious (in)tolerance and what it means to be a Jew. The last of these underlies the play's most intriguing subplot, concerning Rudolf's relationship with a young courtier named Philip Lang who has converted from Judaism but retains strong ties to the wealthy but persecuted Jewish community in Prague.
Rudolf II unfolds entirely in the emperor's bed chamber, over the course of the last several years of his reign. (See this Wikipedia article for historical background.) Here Rudolf interacts with Brahe and Weston, his mistress Katerina, his valet and new lover Philip, and his chamberlain Rumpf. The other character in the play is the spirit of Libuse, the legendary queen and prophetess who supposedly founded Prague. Libuse is part mentor, part muse, and part guide to Rudolf, whose dreams are as big as her legend but whose scattered and diffuse attempts at accomplishment ultimately cannot but fail.
Rudolf is an immense role, and Timothy McCown Reynolds gives the immense performance that the play requires and deserves. Particularly in the poignant second act, where we witness the decline of a startling intellect, Reynolds brings potency and conviction to a larger-than-life character.
Director Henry Akona, who has staged the play tennis-court style in a beautiful theatre housed in the newly renovated Bohemian National Hall, uses the space efficiently and keeps the near-epic story moving briskly and trenchantly. The supporting cast is fine: Joe Gately is perhaps most memorable as the outsized scientist Tycho Brahe, while Adriana Disman and Yvonne Roen are adept playing the important women in Rudolf's life (respectively, Libuse and Katerina). Jack Schaub plays the virile valet Philip, who may or may not be manipulating his patron. Eric E. Oleson as Rumpf and Shelley Ray as Elizabeth round out the ensemble. Ian W. Hill's lighting, incorporating the lush existing chandelier in the room, is impressive.
Rudolf II is the kind of audacious, ambitious, commercialism-be-damned play that makes indie theater so special and worthwhile. I am very glad to have seen it, and to have been exposed to the historical figures and profound ideas that it trades in. A most stimulating event!