Rudolf II sounds like the sort of history play Shakespeare would have written: a troubled, unconventional monarch driven to his downfall by an addled addiction to the arts--a rich Bohemian. If he had, it might have been lyrically epic. Instead, he left it to Edward Einhorn, a modern, entirely too conventional writer whose play is driven to its downfall by an addiction to the arts. This blunt presentation, by Untitled Theater Company 61, is too bogged down by historical circumstance and flat exposition to illuminate the depths of an artistic, tortured soul. Rudolf II (Timothy McCown Reynolds) opens the play by confronting his mortality, a snapped noose around his neck as he speaks to the ghost of Prague's founder, Libuse (Adriana Disman). Over two hours later, he is madder, but the play ends on pretty much this same note, teaching us more about history than his story.
To those who firmly believe--as Rudolf does--that knowledge is pleasure, the facts regurgitated through the ghostly devices of Libuse and the spirit-channeling poet Elizabeth (Shelley Ray) will be delightful. The rest, however, will be deeply disappointed by Rudolf's passivity: because he spends the play confined to his bedchambers, the plot has to be explained to him by his head steward, Rumpf (Eric E. Oleson), and his valet, Phillip (Jack Schaub). Though Einhorn makes the information as palatable as possible, it is rarely dramatic; he is too focused on Rudolf to do justice to the men and women he surrounds himself with, and therefore ends up making the same points over and over again.
For instance, Tycho Brahe (Joe Gately), the famous astronomer, comes to court, but is used only to show how easily Rudolf is flattered into opening his purse strings for "art" and, later, to foreshadow Rudolf's own downfall: "Let me not seem to have died in vain." Because Einhorn does not flesh out characters--Rudolf is in every scene, crowding the others out--even good scenes, as when Rumpf resigns, seem out of the blue. Katerina (Yvonne Roen), Rudolf's mistress, points this unequal domination early in the play, and is thereafter relegated to being a sexual prop, used only to emphasize Rudolf's passions and proclivities. Literally, these characters do not achieve greatness so much as they have it awkwardly thrust upon them. This is most obvious with Phillip, who is elevated after he starts sleeping with Rudolf. However, because there is no chemistry between the actors, and no attention given to how Phillip feels about the relationship, this seems more like a re-enactment than a drama: historically accurate, but empty.
The bluntness and imbalance of Rudolf II are unfortunate, because the central questions of mortality are interesting: if we are going to die, should we not indulge our whims while we can? And attempt to leave legacies in our wake? But for these ideas to spring to life, they must come into conflict--that is, they must be challenged within the world of the play; the artist must be struggling. But Rudolf II is too well-off for that, and by the time he has been bankrupted to the point of confrontation, he is too mad to coherently speak for his ideas. So far as acting goes, this is a lonely task for Reynolds, who is forced to portray a madman without ever being pushed to it: Rudolf's legendary mood-swings seem particularly forced. And while director Henry Akona helps him to frame some of his impotent expressions--there's a fine moment when Rudolf crumples up the call for his resignation only to limply throw it at the messenger--, his "passions" are so tamely staged that they cannot help but leave Reynolds (and the audience) a bit frustrated. The components for a good play exist within Rudolf II, but this production doesn't have the alchemical skill needed to turn the many leaden parts to gold.