What if Michael Jackson had ruled an empire? What might he have done? Well, he might have spent a large chunk of the national treasury to stock magnificent zoos with exotic animals. Or, he might have hired a group of astrologers and alchemists rather than raise an army. He might have even secluded himself for weeks at a time while ignoring affairs of state. That’s just what Rudolf II did in Renaissance Bohemia and these actions and their consequences contributed to the devastation of the Thirty Years' War. You’ve heard of Edward II, Richard III, and Henrys IV, V and VI. Rudolf II? It turns out Rudolf II, who ruled Bohemia, Hungary, and Croatia from roughly 1572-1608, had quite an interesting story. And playwright Edward Einhorn has imagined and presented it in a manner that is nothing short of dazzling.
Rudolf’s reign was a chaotic one, and Mr. Einhorn sketches some of its basic facts, taking broad imaginative license in many cases. Despite some necessary omissions (the whole story of Rudolf II might take days), Mr. Einhorn gives us a fascinating man loaded with contradictions: formidable, yet highly insecure; unmarried and actively bisexual, yet also the Holy Roman Emperor; Catholic, yet spellbound and influenced by mediums who claim to communicate with spirits in puddles of water. Rudolf was also obsessed with his hated younger brother, Archduke Matthias, and, though he feared losing his crown to Matthias, he knowingly made many decisions which actually sped up that very process.
Director Henry Akona maximizes the generous space of the new and magnificent Renaissance Revival Bohemian National Hall on the Upper East Side. The space has spent the last 15 years under renovation by the Czech government. A royal bed, on and around which much of the action occurs, sits at the head of the hall. A bright red carpet runs down the length of the hall (the audience is seated, lengthwise, two rows deep) and every inch of its space is used at one time or other during the production.
Since he spends much of his time in bed, Rudolf (Timothy McCown Reynolds) is almost always dressed in a sleeping gown. Despite this, he exudes a kingly, if effeminate, demeanor that would make one think twice before crossing him. Mr. Reynolds’ acting is first-rate; he moves effortlessly from charming, to bewildered, to enraged. A small orchestra/chorus sits in the balcony and contributes conservatively, never overbearingly. The king’s headboard at one point features a replica of Guiseppe Arcimboldo’s portrait of Rudolf as Roman god of the seasons, a prize possession of an emperor noted for his patronage of the arts.
Mr. Einhorn is an accomplished playwright who confidently breathes life into a complex and paranoid ruler who was uniquely unqualified to rule. Yet, Mr. Einhorn also captures Rudolf’s eccentricity, humanity, contradictions and humor. The love scenes between Rudolf and his mistress Katerina (Yvonne Roen) are playful and sweet. Ms. Roen expertly plays the apprehensive and long-suffering mistress, loving Rudolf despite his numerous dalliances and his open long-term affair with his chamberlain, Philip Lang (Jack Schaub). Each actor in this production is greatly talented; there are no weak links. Standouts include Eric Oleson as Rumpf, Rudolf’s first and candid chamberlain, and the bearish Joe Gately as the great but haughty Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe. Carla Gant’s costuming can only be described as majestic and Ian W. Hill’s lighting has a touch of the surreal.
It takes chutzpah and no small amount of self-confidence to pen a historical play such as this. Mr. Einhorn surely grasps the magnitude of the undertaking and turns the effort into an unmitigated success. You don’t need to be a scholar of the Austro-Hungarian empire to enjoy this play; all you need is the willingness to be entertained and enlightened.