By Massimo Iacoboni

A consistently fine actor, Rocco Sisto appears at the Cherry Lane Theatre until December 2nd in the monologue Enrico IV, based on the play by Italian playwright and Nobel laureate Luigi Pirandello. This version dispenses with every character in the play except the titular one, an Italian aristocrat who believes himself to be Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV (Enrico IV, in Italian).

It is not so much an adaptation as a digest: Enrico’s several monologues, as written by Pirandello, are strung together and translated in English for this performance, part of a month-long tribute to Italian theatre that includes two other plays, all directed by Laura Caparrotti and produced by KIT – Kairos Italy Theater, a New York-based Italian Theater Company.

It’s the beginning of the 20th century, and in a somewhat lugubrious mansion in the Italian countryside, furnished to resemble Henry’s imperial palace at Goslar and staffed with servants in period costumes, the mad Enrico sits on his throne berating the Emperor’s enemies. No one bears the brunt of his ire more than Pope Gregory VII, who has famously excommunicated him. Enrico’s nephew and other noble men and women have come to the house to check on the madman’s health, all the while indulging his imperial fantasy by pretending to be members of his court. Enrico threatens and pontificates, indulges in furious rants but then turns meek and obsequious, and then again, suddenly, explodes into torrents of assorted invectives and recriminations.

We learn that long ago, during a costumed pageant in which he had appeared as Henry IV, Enrico was (accidentally?) thrown off his horse by Belcredi, one of the visiting noblemen, and that the two shared a love interest in the form of Matilda who, now Belcredi’s lover, has also traveled to the house to visit Enrico. The animosity that existed between Enrico and Belcredi has not abated with the passing of time.

Eventually Enrico confesses that he has recovered from his illness long ago, but has preferred to continue to feign madness rather than rejoin his peers in their shallow, hypocritical lives. His behavior, however, continues to remain erratic. Is he mad, then, or isn’t he? And how sane is the moralist, duplicitous society around him?

Pirandello returned to themes of insanity (his wife would spend most of her life in a mental institution), moralistic propriety and social alienation throughout his artistic output, and his oeuvre, which straddled the decades before and after the turn of the century, is sometimes seen as an early precursor of absurdist theater.

His preoccupation with social anxiety, personal identity and existentialism, however, was often infused with irony, and this production, by dispensing with all the characters that surround Enrico in the original text, becomes more unadulterated tragedy than perhaps originally intended. While there is much to praise in Mr. Sisto’s forceful performance, the critique of Enrico’s social milieu is somewhat weakened by the absence of the visitors, whose hypocritical propriety, which Enrico repeatedly mocks, also functioned as a humorous counterpoint to his own, enraged, contempt.

Enrico IV by Luigi Pirandello. Starring Rocco Sisto. Directed by Laura Caparrotti. Translated by Gloria Pastorino. Set design by Sarah Edkins. Lighting Design by Haejin Han. Costume design by GV Studio. Tickets.