Lady Anne Boleyn (Madeleine Lambert) first appears on stage dressed in a blood-soaked gown and with her severed head stowed in her satchel, charmingly and matter-of-factly presenting the details of her execution to the audience. This mix of horror, humor, and history defines playwright Howard Brenton's theatrical exploration of Boleyn's brief reign. The production packs a great deal of history into a two-hour performance, but the delivery is fast-paced, clearly presented, and very funny.
Brenton's approach breathes new life into Boleyn's public persona as Queen and delves deeply into her private and fiercely-held personal faith; he also employs the characters to examine the realities and intersections of state, religious, and gender politics at work in Tudor England.
Lambert brings spunk and playfulness to her portrayal of Boleyn, mixing in a healthy dose of bravery, stubbornness and determination. Above all, Lambert's Boleyn is extremely self-aware, holding fast to her forbidden Protestant faith while shrewdly navigating the treacherous world of the royal court.
The second of Henry VIII's famed, ill-fated six wives, Boleyn received her full share of negative accusations both during and after her lifetime: whore, witch, adulteress, heretic. Lambert carefully crafts Boleyn's portrait to reveal the complexities of her character, and her emotional responses - happiness in Henry's presence, reverence when discussing the things of God with Bible scholar William Tyndale, palpable terror when her friends at court faithlessly betray her - read with distinct sincerity across the footlights.
Steve Kidd plays King Henry as delightfully immature, more interested in hunting parties and a good supper than affairs of state. With his roving eye and pleasure-seeking ways, Henry VIII is a difficult, if fascinating, monarch to appreciate, but Kidd's lighthearted approach to the role makes The Gamm's Henry charismatic and likeable in spite of his very marked shortcomings.
Two generations after Henry, King James I (played by Tony Estrella) discovers a copy of Tyndale's New Testament among the late Boleyn's possessions. Intrigued, James determines to settle the matter of religious divisions in England with the production of the definitive English translation of the Bible, but to the shock of all, he chooses Tyndale's work - a banned book in both James and Boleyn's times - as the chief resource for his scholars.
During much of his time on stage, James seeks an interview with the ghost of his royal predecessor, the infamous Anne Boleyn. James initially searches for Queen Anne's shade in jest, but she appears even so, eager to share the story of her rise and fall in the court of King Henry VIII.
Estrella draws some of the biggest laughs of the night as the animated, often coarse King James I. He never allows for a break in James' exuberant, if bawdy, mannerisms, making them such a hallmark of the sovereign that transitions from outright silliness to moments of significant wisdom (especially in terms of governing) happen with no discernible hesitation, keeping both the King's courtiers' and The Gamm audience's rapt attention.
The supporting cast shines just as brightly, with special commendation to Casey Seymour-Kim as Boleyn's hapless, unreliable sister-in-law, Lady Rochford; Richard Noble as both Simpkin and Dean Andrewes; and the always-delightful Sam Babbitt as Robert Cecil.
Set designer Jessica Hill impeccably transformed The Gamm's intimate performance space into a proper Tudor palace, complete with metal chandeliers, mounted game trophies on the walls, and lovely candle sconces. The creative use of draperies allows the castle to translate into an orchard, a forest, or a chapel setting as needed. David T. Howard's flawless costume design is entirely breathtaking, showing great attention to construction while incorporating rich details.
The Gamm presents Anne Boleyn at the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange Street, Pawtucket, RI. This production runs through February 24, 2013 and ticket prices range from $36 to $45. Discount rates are available for groups, seniors and students through February 17 only. To purchase tickets, contact the box office at (401) 723-4266 or visit The Gamm online at www.gammtheatre.org.
Photo Credit: Peter Goldberg