Many Americans have a sense of British history that comes from a smattering of watered down school lessons and reruns of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The Royals are a fetish for some and costume dramas have been dominating the airwaves lately, but for us non-Anglophiles, our grasp of The Tudors is hazy at best. Anne Boleyn, in particular, has been glorified and iconized, but grossly misunderstood and relegated to not much more than a three-nippled, 11-fingered witch whose head fell out of favor with the permanently corpulent Henry VIII.
Leave it British playwright Howard Brenton, then, to retool the Boleyn saga and shake up our misperceptions. Brenton excels in reverently skewering his subjects while still keeping their place on a well-lit pedestal. This ability to serve saucy nuggets to the groundlings while delivering pithy, philosophical meanderings on religion and politics is Shakespearean in scope, and intentionally so. What could have been bloated and pompous is instead a hilarious and enlightening pocket epic that shows The Gamm firing on all cylinders.
Director Rachel Walshe focuses on the idea that Anne Boleyn “is more about who we are than who she is” and delicately stages matters to both showcase Madeleine Lambert’s forcefully potent performance and the revolutionary ideas that her character forces upon her immediate environment – and ultimately, Western religious culture. To say that Boleyn is a feminist script would be shortsighted. Anne’s ambitions were not about the role of women in the court but about the freedom of all to practice religion without domineering influence by political or papist concerns.
This ambition is what made her feared and admired by her contemporaries. Even her oppressors, Thomas Cromwell (played with a magnificent slow burn by Jim O’Brien) and Simpkin (a wonderful Richard Noble) say, “We were all in love with her.” They state that Anne’s chief danger was that she was not afraid of them. “What man can deal with that? Fear is the great leveler.”
That sentiment about fear is the crux of the drama and the ghost-hunter mystery that propels her story into the future court of King James I, played by Tony Estrella (who is subtly billed as co-director). Estrella turns in one the most lovingly scenery-chewing performances I’ve witnessed. In a cloud of powder, his preening monarch sucks in everything and everyone around him until they are mere specks in the black hole of his lasciviousness. (I’m still muttering a brogue-enhanced “Steamy!” many days after the fact).
While the bawdy revels of James are a reminder that we are an audience to be entertained, the true character is an intelligently focused man, newly entrusted with a key to a mystery of the court and determined to piece together the fragments of a kingdom’s religious past and future. The symbolism of James thrusting his head up the skirts of Boleyn’s old wedding dress in order to catch a whiff of past sins encapsulates both the low humor and historical mission of the play.
The entire cast manages to keep up with Estrella’s rampages. Casey Seymour Kim, a Gamm stalwart known for more quirky, somewhat fidgety portrayals, is stately perfection here and Steve Kidd’s Henry VIII is an engaging, almost boyish raconteur as opposed to the overfed, murderous tyrant one expects to see. Joe Short, as both the pivotal author of what would become the King James Bible (William Tyndale) and the somewhat unwilling object of James’ affections (George Villiers), delivers two solid, concretely different performances. Sam Babbitt and Tom Gleadow are predictably pompous and equally hilarious.
Jessica Hill’s open set is awash in greens, golds and browns with David T. Howard’s brilliant period costuming playing off of the same palette. This is a lush piece set on a sparse stage. While the entire theater is used to great effect (fancy dresses hang from the ceiling above our heads while ornate chandeliers dangle over the aisles), Walshe has eschewed most of the usual trappings to allow the words to do most of the work. Even the lack of pre-recorded music at any point shows the desire to keep things elegantly simple. There is plenty of music, however, deftly served up by David Rabinow and David Tessier who also serve as utility players with their own moments to shine.
So, whether viewing Anne Boleyn as a History major with a thirst for a new take on the religious upheavals of 16th and 17th century England or someone who loves scatological humor in any context, this play is large slice of both. The show runs through February 17. Gammtheatre.org.