British historical dramas are so deliciously paradoxical.
Distinguished playwrights from Shakespeare onward have elevated the majesty of the English language to dizzying heights, all for the purpose of re-creating the moral cesspool that was British monarchical politics.
In the most elegant language the world has ever heard, treachery,malice and intrigue are spun together to weave tales of violence, hypocrisy, duplicity and avarice that make the Nixon White House look like the Miss Muffett Nursery School by comparison.
Which is why these plays are so difficult to bring off, it seems to me. Not only must there be actors of genuine stature to portray the Beckets, Henrys, Eleanors, et al., but a director would also need a talented ensemble of dukes, lords, ladies, weaseling churchmen and sinister bureaucratsto bring the Machiavellian backdrop convincingly to life.
Such was the challenge placed before the cast of "Anne of the Thousand Days," the Maxwell Anderson play currently in production at Colonial Players of Annapolis. Unfortunately, it is a challenge only partly met.
"Anne of the Thousand Days" is, of course, the story of Henry the VIII's misbegotten marriage to Anne Boleyn. This was the union that brought Henry to the brink of ruin and Anne to the executioner's block. Ironically, it was also responsible for the greatest sovereign in British history. Anne, who incurred Henry's wrath by failing to provide him his male heir, would bear him the daughter who would accrue more glory for the realm than her father ever did: Queen Elizabeth I.
Henry and Anne dominate this production as thoroughly as they did the politics of Tudor England.
James Gallagher is a bearded, strappingredhead who looks as though he's stepped out of a Holbein portrait. Imposing in staturewith a deep baritone voice, Gallagher's Henry is as virile, willful and calculating as one could want. This is a man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants, yet whose vanity is prickly enough to feel slighted when others do not assent.
With Kris Valerio on stage as a feisty, headstrong Anne, the royal sparks fly through the entire production. Valerio makes a convincing transition from the breathless young maiden in love with her childhood sweetheart Lord Percy, to the insistent, devious woman able to manipulate the king of England into risking everything -- papal excommunication, civilunrest -- for her hand.
The problem with this "Anne of the Thousand Days," however, is that the caldron of intrigue and treachery surrounding the principals never begins to bubble because no one else on stage seems capable of lighting much of a fire. On balance, this is not a distinguished supporting cast.
Cardinal Wolsey comes off morelike the King's kvetchy Aunt Sophie from Cleveland than the powerfulprelate who ran England when he wasn't busy doing Henry's dirty workat the Vatican. Ideally, Wolsey should be the third major presence in the play, even as his influence over Henry is supplanted by Anne. But in this incarnation, he stands meekly in the wake of the royal couple.
Anne's parents pack their daughter off to Henry's court with no trace of emotion whatsoever. There's no deviousness, no real opportunism, no guilt, no aristocratic flair -- no nothing.
The Duke ofNorfolk, Anne's relative who winds up presiding at her trial, exudeslittle treachery and the sniveling Thomas Cromwell who trumps up theadultery charges against the queen is only intermittently menacing.
Better support was provided by Mindy Braden as Anne's sister Mary,John Dennis and Mickey Freeman as a pair of churchmen and Rosalie Andrews as the lovely Jane Seymour.