“Farinelli and the King” follows Spain’s Phillipe V, an 18th century monarch who was out of his mind, and an Italian castrato, whose singing was out of this world.
So much so that Farinelli’s ethereal voice eased the ruler’s debilitating depression and hushed unsettling chatter in his head. Yes, Carlo Broschi, who was castrated at age 10 and used the stage name Farinelli, was that singular.
English playwright Claire van Kampen’s fact-based but liberally embroidered drama isn’t so sensational — and can’t get past one obstacle. It’s impossible to duplicate the sound of Farinelli’s voice.
Still, the drama at the Belasco is a richly theatrical reminder of what art can do. It also has an ace up its brocaded sleeve. It stars Mark Rylance, who is married to the author and a one-of-a-kind actor. He has the Tonys for “Boeing-Boeing,” “Jerusalem” and “Twelfth Night” and an Oscar for “Bridge of Spies” to show for it.
Mark Rylance brings his one-of-a-kind acting to the role of the mad king.
Rylance’s sly unpredictability suits the role of Philippe, whose shaky mental health (bipolar, in today’s terms) drove everyone in his court nuts. His loving, long-suffering second wife Isabella (Melody Grove) believed that Farinelli’s angelic voice could help. It does, but over time harmony is laced with discord and romantic intrigue in van Kampen’s story.
Rylance is riveting as the bedeviled ruler, but his star turn still raised mixed feelings. At times he is deliciously daft and spontaneous, but he’s also occasionally too stagy and calculating to ring true. In some moments, you see him working.
The play’s bright creative stroke is having Sam Crane, who’s wonderfully sympathetic, act the part of Carlo, and sweet-voiced countertenor Iestyn Davies sing as Farinelli. (James Hall sings at some performances.) As selections by Handel are sung, both actors stand side-by-side in near-mirror images. It’s a stirring comment on one man’s duality.
The cast of the sumptuously appointed play includes, from left, Sam Crane, Melody Grove, Lucas Hall, Huss Garbiya, Edward Peel and Mark Rylance.
Director John Dove’s candlelit staging, seen in London in 2015, is appointed with sumptuous eye candy by designer Jonathan Fensom as well as fanciful visuals. A memorable mid-air moment draws inspiration from a singer with the voice of an angel.
The play’s poky first half meanders, but it gains momentum after the intermission. Before and during the show, theatergoers — some are seated on stage — are drawn into the story. That fits for a play about the power of music. A little art therapy now could likely do us all some good.