The Gamm’s majestic Anne Boleyn

A delightful dervish
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  January 22, 2013

FORCE OF NATURE Lambert in the title role.

The Gamm Theatre has pulled off a couple of coups. The first is presenting the American premiere of prestigious British playwright Howard Brenton's Anne Boleyn (they report that "less than a house worth of seats are available for the regular run"; the show has been extended through February 24). The second, even more impressive, is to accomplish such a dynamic and thoroughly satisfying production, with Madeleine Lambert as the spirited dervish in the title role.

It is directed by Rachel Walshe with energetic agility, which would also describe Anne, the second wife of Henry VIII (Steve Kidd), whose ordering around those about her — including the king — resulted in such upheavals as England breaking off from the Vatican. As presented here, Anne can be described as a whirlwind or a hurricane, depending on whether she's tearing through obstacles in a straight line or willy-nilly. At the very beginning we get to appreciate her outsized personality — and Brenton's wacky narrating style — when her ghost pulls out of a bag both her severed head and a copy of the controversial Bible translated by William Tyndale (Joe Short). Her temperament was such that she was bound to be an adamant protester (as in Protestant) against the authority of the Catholic Church. Her temper was such that she was bound to eventually lose her head over something or other.

Anne Boleyn died in 1536, but we also get a play within a play, featuring the court of King James I, who assumed the throne in 1603, commencing the reign of the House of Stuart. He's depicted here as a cynical voluptuary, and Tony Estrella clearly enjoys the hell out of the role, as do we, as he struts about with lover-confidant George Villiers (Short), issuing pronouncements through a lilting Scottish burr. We know him today as the man who commissioned the King James Bible, and the play presents him as trying to calm waters still roiling after Anne's influence: Henry VIII established the Church of England, breaking completely from Rome after the pope refused to grant an annulment so he could marry Anne, and in James's day the Anglican and Puritan factions are still fighting.

The whole thing about the six eventual wives of Henry VIII is that he demanded a male heir to continue the House of Tudor. When Cardinal Wolsey (Tom Gleadow) failed to get him that annulment, both he and first wife Catherine of Aragon met serious royal disapproval. For five years Anne refuses to become Henry's mistress, declaring that "I would rather lose my life than my honesty." Whether that was for religious or political reasons is unclear in the play, but becoming queen wasn't all it was cracked up to be: soon after a miscarriage (it was male), she was executed on trumped-up adultery charges. Anne presenting him with the future Queen Elizabeth I didn't count for much.

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