Tuesday, April 26, 2016

"Anne Boleyn"

Anne Boleyn
Howard Brenton

Craig Marker as Henry VIII & Liz Sklar as Anne Bolyen
She was Queen of England, yet there is no portrait of her since her husband and King scoured the country to destroy all traces of her very existence.  She was decapitated, but exactly what she did to warrant (or not) such vile punishment is still an argument among historians.  What we think we know about her is largely through the many plays, novels, films, and even an opera telling her thousand days of reign as the most famous of Henry VIII’s six wives.  Adding to that long line of portrayals now comes Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn in a stunning beautiful and exceptionally well-cast, well-directed, and well-acted West Coast premiere at Marin Theatre Company.  Spanning not only the years leading up to and during her short, royal tenure but also the haunting effects she has on King James I seventy years later, the play pages through both familiar and fantasized history to inform and intrigue us about this momentous turning point for England and the Western World as well as to initiate and instigate parallels to the 21st Century, including even the present U.S. presidential election.

Craig Marker & Liz Sklar
Carrying a bag with an apparent, bulky sphere in it, Anne Boleyn walks on stage and directly taunts the audience before rather playfully showing the gruesome contents.  From those opening moments until the closing fading lights when a now-dead Anne can rest her soul knowing she is in fact remembered, Liz Sklar captures in captivating majesty the full gamut of the vulnerable human, the piously religious, and the daringly political sides of this unlucky Queen.  We become her confidants; and she looks to us in the audience as the ones who can, along with her, validate the obvious, evil plotting of a Cardinal Wolsey or the real attraction of a handsome, courting King.  The dignified, knowing manner she holds herself is like that of a legitimate queen while the way she allows herself to be swooped laughing and teasing into a king’s arms is certainly that of a young woman in love.  Her eyes are piercing and her chin firmly set as she declares, “We are cutting England from the Pope because of me,” but her voice is full of quiet resolve and eerie premonition when she declares even before being crowned, “I would lose my life than my honesty.”  In the scenes of Henry’s England, Liz Sklar is steely in her resolve as a lady of the court and lover of the king to ensure Henry and England make a final break with Rome.  Interspersed throughout the time-bouncing play, she is decades later mysterious, mystical, and moving as an image in James’s mind who listens and advises him as a new king working to resolve and heal some of the left-over, religious schisms due in some small, or perhaps large part, to her earlier, Protestant-leaning vision.  Overall, Ms. Sklar is an Anne Boleyn worthy of joining a long line of actresses who have sought to fill in between the missing lines of who this woman really was.

David Ari as George Valliers & Craig Marker as James I
Equally royal in performance is Craig Marker as both King Henry VIII and as King James I.  When in the broad-shouldered, fur-rich open coat we now most associate with Henry, Mr. Marker struts, leaps, and stomps according to the mood required of this bombastic king who is willing to do whatever it takes to ensure a male progeny.  With his Anne, he tolerates and even delights in her joking and teasing (like her mimicking Cardinal Wolsey as a baaing sheep).  With anyone who dares cross his purposes, he roars with command and threatening vengeance and leaves no doubts that this King will break any political or personal alliance to get his will.  As the newly crowned James, Mr. Marker dons tight-fitting leather wear and tempts with devilish glees any advisor to dare raise more than an eyebrow as he in drag kisses his swish-hipped lover, George Villiers (the convincing David Ari).  His James also relishes with almost childlike enthusiasm the religious debates he sets in play between translators of his commissioned Bible -- that is until their harangues over choices like ‘church’ or ‘congregation’ put him to sleep.  But there is a part of James that anguishes as a man possessed by images of a castle-wandering, deposed Anne; and he desperately searches her for some assurance, understanding, and guidance on how to lead this Church of England as the new King.  The images Craig Marker leaves us as both monarchs are only matched by the memory we will long carry of the loud, raucous, and individually distinct laughter that repeatedly comes from both his kings.

Charles Shaw Robinson as Cardinal Wolsey & Liz Sklar as Anne Boleyn
The stellar qualities of this cast extend to all its members.  Charles Shaw Robinson is dripping-pompous in his robes and rings as well as his demeanor as the power-grabbing Cardinal Wolsey and is patient with rolled eyes and generous understanding as Lord Robert Cecil, counselor to the young James.  Besides playing James’s handsome object of forbidden but tolerated love, David Ari is also the fiercely calculating Thomas Cromwell, advisor to Henry and yet another court member quite willing to leave whatever body necessary by the wayside while making his own way up the ladder of power (including that of a Queen).  Dan Hiatt is the hooded and hiding exile, William Tyndale, an advocate of the outlawed Protestant movement who meets Anne in the woods to sing, pray, and even shout “Martin Luther.”  He later is a scheming, suggesting Dr. John Reynolds who plays up to James’s desire to do something great in his newly crowned state by suggesting he authorize a new version of the Bible.  Howard Swain is a formidable debater of religious nit-picking in James’ Court, and Ryan Tasker is Harry Barrow, another Puritan separatist and loud, stubborn theological arguer providing his own of set opinions on the words still read today as holy.  Arwen Anderson and Lauren Spencer await Anne as loyal ladies but are also susceptible to turning against her when the evil Wosley threatens them with his famed, basement rack.  As a total ensemble, each person is well matched to assigned roles; and the collective is so ably and astutely directed by Jasson Minadakis.

That we are seeing history in the making is so wonderfully established by Nina Ball’s latest in a long line of spectacular sets on local stages, this surely being one of her very best.  Imagine a book in the museum shop where a page is opened, and up pops a court scene.  That is the look of the intricately cut-out edges of the massive, receding arches of a royal court rising above Marin’s deep and high stage where the only additional property seen or needed is one, lone throne.  Magic happens on the walls of these arches and on the floors under them through exquisitely beautiful lighting by Kurt Landisman.  From shadowy chapels to magnificent courtyards to forests full of giant trees, the lighting schemes prove to be a powerful reason this production is so successful. 

And certainly Ashley Holvick’s costumes created for two eras cannot be overlooked --  costumes speaking of another era but also designed with modern look and flair.   The short dresses of court ladies and the modern-looking pants of some male hangers-on remind us that the religious prejudices, the menacing mixture of state and religion, and the larger-than-life egos of those doing all they can to grab and hang onto power in this play are all too similar to what we read about daily in 2016.  What we hear said in James’s court could be coming from a Op-Ed of today’s NY Times: “Why is it what we do in the name of God is in the same as in our own interest?”

Howard Brenton’s script is heavy in words, images, analogies, and history – sometimes on the verge of too much of any and all of these.  But, with a cast like Marin Theatre Company has assembled and with a production of the soaring quality that is upon this stage, Anne Boleyn is nothing short than theatre that is truly masterpiece through and through.

Rating: 5 E

Anne Boleyn continues in extension through May 15 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA, with a special performance April 30 at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco (12 p.m.).  Tickets for all performances are available online at http://www.marintheatre.org or by calling the box office Tuesday – Sunday, 12 -5 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne

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