Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A am a Plain Dealing VIllain: Portraying Thomas Cromwell at the Maryland Renaissance Festival

By Diane Holcomb Wilshere

Presented at the Popular Cultural Association/
American Cultural Association National Conference
Washington, D.C. March 27, 2013



This paper would not have been possible without the cooperation and support of the following:

Dr. Kimberly Tony Korol-Evans – department chair, friend, mentor

The interview subjects whether formally responding to questions or discussing memories of the festival in years pass with the author at cocktail parties:

Thomas Plott, Thomas Cromwell 1993-1994

Steven Kirkpatrick, Thomas Cromwell 2003-2005, 2007

Carolyn Spedden, Artistic Director, Maryland Renaissance Festival

Mike Field, Playwright

Mary Ann Jung, Royal Court Director, Maryland Renaissance Festival

And this paper is dedicated to Kevin Wilshere, for his love, support and putting up with the author’s eccentricities


“…it must not be denied but I am a plaine dealing vilaine,”

---Don John, Much Adoe About Nothing by William Shakespeare[1]

William Shakespeare’s villains are easy to identify. They tell us they are villains. There is no subtext, no deep dark childhood secret that makes us realize that they aren’t really bad people. They are who they are and this makes watching them that much more enjoyable for the audience. When it comes to history, particularly the popular culture obsession with all things Tudor England, there is a similar desire to create easily identifiable heroes and villains.
What are the challenges for an actor when they are portraying a person from history who is usually identified by popular culture as the villain? One could easily write a novel-length paper on the many persons who were at the courts of the Tudor monarchs who, in historical fiction, plays and films are seen as the villains. The Maryland Renaissance Festival employs professional actors to portray the King and his court.  The royal court storyline changes from year to year.  The festival has portrayed all six of King Henry VIII’s queens twice and has now returned back in time to portray Queen Katherine of Aragon for a third time.
In the course of the two previous queenly cycles two actors have portrayed a character widely seen in both fictional and non-fictional mediums as a villain. Thomas Cromwell is popularly seen as the orchestrator of the falls of Sir Thomas More and Queen Anne Boleyn.  As the Vice-Regent for the King In Spirituals Cromwell destroyed the monasteries filling the King’s treasury with the spoils and using the land to enrich himself and other members of the court.  Thomas Cromwell made a fatal mistake in promoting the King’s marriage to his fourth wife, Queen Anna of Cleves.  Two months after being raised to the title of Earl of Essex he was arrested and attainted for treason and heresy. His subsequent execution was grisly as the headsman botched the job.  A fitting end to a notorious villain.

“With rewards and penalties –so much wickedness purchases so much worldly prospering---“

---Thomas Cromwell, A Man For All Seasons by Robert Bolt[2]

We all love a good story. When it comes to history we are much more enamored of historical narratives with clear heroes and villains rather than a simple rote list of names, dates and events.  It has been ever so from the first chroniclers of Tudor History.  Examining Thomas Cromwell he has been brushed with the label of villain since the earliest chroniclers.  Theatrically he is portrayed as a driving calculating minister who rose in power from his humble peasant beginnings to the most powerful man in the kingdom, the indispensible right hand man to the king.[3][4] [5]

When those historians, whether John Foxe in his Acts and Monuments positively extolling the Protestant virtues of Thomas Cromwell’s church reforms[6] or Nicholas Sander demonizing Cromwell for persecuting the Carthusian monks for refusing to swear an oath recognizing King Henry VIII as head of the Church of England,[7] each historian’s viewpoint is colored depending on the moral tale they wished to relate to their readers.  This has translated to the fictional portrayals of Thomas Cromwell from the beginning. Even William Shakespeare has weighed in on Thomas Cromwell, portraying him as the loyal servant of Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey, devastated by Wolsey’s downfall.[8]
What has changed in the 20th and 21st centuries is the rise in popularity of historical fiction. The majority of the portrayals of Thomas Cromwell keep him in his traditional role as the villain of Henry VIII’s court. There have been numerous dramatic portrayals on stage, screen and television that have, for the most part continued the popular stereotypes of Henry VIII’s prominent minister.
Discovering the real person behind the popular cultural perception has become much easier in the past decade with the availability of primary source materials on the Internet.  It is easier to examine the letters and papers of King Henry VIII’s court and read the actual accounts of the reign.  Numerous out of print books, such as accounts originally published in the Victorian era are available to download and peruse.   Yet, the stereotypes persist.  After all, the history seems juicier when one can write dramatic tales, for example, Queen Anne Boleyn’s allegedly deformed miscarried son[9], which most historians believe was not the case.[10] [11]
This is partly due to the continued interest in Tudor England in popular culture starting in 1998 with the release of the Academy Award-winning film Elizabeth. From Philippa Gregory’s novels The Other Boleyn Girl and The Boleyn Inheritance, Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, to the many miniseries on Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I which led up to the very popular Showtime series The Tudors, the 16th century remains a popular subject to dramatize. This is also apparent at those renaissance festivals that portray the royal court through storylines based on historical events.

“As matters stand you are but half a king…What the King of England wants he should have, without hindrance from abroad.”

---Thomas Cromwell, Anne of The Thousand Days by Maxwell Anderson

The Maryland Renaissance Festival is known for providing entertaining dramatized plays about the prominent events in the reign of King Henry VIII.  As mentioned previously, the Maryland Renaissance Festival has portrayed the entire cycle of King Henry VIII and all six of his queens twice and has started with Queen Katherine of Aragon for a third time.[12]  The special nature of acting at a renaissance festival also leads to what Dr. Kimberly Tony Korol-Evans terms historical elaboration.[13]
Dr. Korol-Evans defines historical elaboration as  “first-person interpretation with an additional theatrical flair.”[14] Renaissance festival actors are not just performing their characters as part of a play on a stage. Many members of the audience gain a chance to interact with the actors through improvisation, thus gaining a more personal relationship than they might develop by simply seeing the character on a stage. Through such interactions, the audience gets an idea of whom that person might have been through the interpretation of the actor portraying the part. When Thomas Cromwell is portrayed as the villain it becomes a chance for an actor to either fully embrace that villainous role or subtlety shade the audience’s perception by giving them a glimpse into the character’s motivations for his actions.

“I tread as my duty directs me, your majesty. I tread for your interests.”
Thomas Cromwell, The Six Wives of Henry VIII: Anne Boleyn
by Nick McCarty[15]

It is a breath of fresh air that Thomas Cromwell’s recent biographer, Robert Hutchinson does not waste pages trying to expand upon what little is known about Thomas Cromwell’s early life.  We don’t know exactly when Thomas Cromwell was born, but it is presumed to be around 1485.  His father, Walter Cromwell was a violent man who was in constant legal troubles and held many different jobs including that of blacksmith.   At some point young Thomas ended up going to the continent where he traveled to the Low Countries and Italy and may have fought as a member of the French army on the losing side in a war with the Spanish.[16] He ended up in Antwerp and Italy where he became a clerk to several bankers and merchants and became fluent in several languages.[17] Returning to England by 1516 he had married and was considered influential enough to be sent by John Robinson, an aldermen of Boston in Lincolnshire to travel to Rome to seek two indulgences from Pope Leo X.[18]
It is not known when he became acquainted with Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey, but he entered the Cardinal’s service at some point in the mid-1520’s.  Cromwell also served in the House of Commons in Parliament.[19]  Cromwell survived the fall of Wolsey from favor and joined the King’s household in 1530.   He would become known to history for his legal expertise in the King’s Great Matter (or the annulment of the marriage of  King Henry VIII and Queen Katherine of Aragon) and the rise of Anne Boleyn to queen.  His role as Vice-Regent of the King in Spirituals led to his overseeing the dissolution of the monasteries and brought him into conflict both with the conservative, more traditional Roman Catholic members of the aristocracy and with the reforming faction represented by Queen Anne and her brother, George, Viscount Rochford.  It is those conflicts that have made Thomas Cromwell a natural villain in the fictional versions of the court of King Henry VIII.  Thomas Cromwell has featured as a villain in such works as Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons, Maxwell Anderson’s Anne of the Thousand Days, the 1970 BBC Miniseries The Six Wives of Henry VIII and the 2007-2010 Showtime Series The Tudors. 
The storylines written for the two Thomas Cromwells portrayed at the Maryland Renaissance Festival have been based on actual incidents of the time period. They have been changed for dramatic effect sometimes changing the setting to the Festival’s fictional village of Revel Grove or giving Cromwell a more active role in some events.  In the plays and scenarios written for the character Thomas Cromwell remains a person of power and influence and most certainly, the villain.

“I am not the King’s right hand, I am his fist.”

---Thomas Cromwell, Cromwell’s Ghost by Mike Field[20]

Thomas Plott portrayed Thomas Cromwell at the Maryland Renaissance Festival for two seasons, 1993 and 1994.  In 1993 the year portrayed was 1537 and King Henry VIII was looking for property to build Nonsuch Palace. As Royal Court Director Mary Ann Jung commented she had discovered that historically the village of  Cuddington in Epsom, Surrey had been sold to the crown and destroyed to make way for the palace and two royal parks. [21]In the Festival’s version of the story Thomas Cromwell decided that Revel Grove was the perfect location and tried to get the Mayor of Revel Grove to sign the property over to the crown.[22]  In the course of the festival performance day, the Mayor received a blow on the head, which made him think that he was King Alfred the Great.  At the end of the day, the Mayor regained his memory just as he was about to sign over the deed to the village.  Cromwell ordered his subordinate, the village deputy Cyril to take care of the Mayor leading to the Mayor’s murder. 
In 1994, this storyline was revisited in the haunting tale written by playwright Mike Field, Cromwell’s Ghost.   In the story Cromwell is lured to the home of a local embroider who wants to punish Cromwell for the death of the Mayor and the subsequent madness of the Mayor’s sister.  The actual ghost of the Mayor appears to Cromwell, literally making him confront the demons of his past. 
The main royal court storyline that season concerned the ill-fated marriage of King Henry VIII and Queen Anna of Cleves.  After the King’s wedding was held on the joust field, Cromwell was forced to sit on a bench on the field to watch the final joust of the day instead of in the royal reviewing stand.  Once the joust concluded Cromwell was arrested.  He charged towards the royal box, was whipped and escorted away to prison while the village choir sang Mozart’s Dies Ire. 
According to playwright Mike Field, Cromwell’s power was emphasized by his dramatic arrival with the royal court first thing in the morning.  Cromwell was carried by four men in a covered litter as the rest of the royal court walked in procession through the gates of the village.[23]  His subsequent fall from grace was visually stark as he sat on a simple wooden bench while the joust took place.  Reflecting on his time as Thomas Cromwell  Mr. Plott did not see Cromwell as a villain but as a necessary evil.  Yet he was delighted by his audience interactions, describing how he was treated and how he treated the audience by saying “with fear, loathing and delight…All that I hoped for.”[24] Mr. Plott  saw the arc of the storyline he portrayed as a “classic villain storyline.  He was a man who could not escape his fate, though he thought he could.”[25]
Mr. Plott has a unique perspective, as he is a Character Interpreter at George Washington’s Mt. Vernon in Virginia.  When asked to comment on the differences between being a Character Interpreter at an historic location such as Mt. Vernon and performing an historic character at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, Mt. Plott replied, “ The similarities are the fact that Cromwell is a historical person and certain facts are known about him.  As a Character Interpreter you try to use the knowledge of these facts to create a realistic portrayal of the person. In the case of Cromwell for the festival, I also had to shape my performance using the scripts as another set of ‘facts’ to specifically portray him as a villain.”[26]

“The last three weeks I was alive, I couldn’t speak to Henry, couldn’t send a message. Cromwell cut me off. While he told his lies.”
----Anne Boleyn, Anne Boleyn by Howard Brenton[27]

Thomas Cromwell returned to the cast of the Maryland Renaissance Festival in 2003, this time in the guise of actor Steven Kirkpatrick.  He would portray Cromwell until the 2007 season, with the exception of the 2006 season.  Mr. Kirkpatrick recalled that the storylines over the course of the four seasons “increasingly emphasized the rise of Cromwell in power and influence.[28]  Mr. Kirkpatrick began his tenure as Cromwell as the festival portrayed the year 1534 and the storylines showed that King Henry VIII could depend upon Cromwell to do what the king wanted.  The scripts gave Mr. Kirkpatrick clues that shaped his Cromwell as shrewd, calm and wry.  Fellow members of the cast commented to Mr. Kirkpatrick that while they remembered Thomas Plott’s Cromwell as more of a Darth Vader-like terrorizing villain, Mr. Kirkpatrick was more “slimy”, “like a snake,” or “like Severus Snape”[29]  from Harry Potter.
In 2004, the festival portrayed the Year of Three Queens.[30] In the course of the festival performing day Queen Katherine of Aragon died, Queen Anne Boleyn was arrested and executed and Mistress Jane Seymour was betrothed to the king.  In history these events happened over the first five months of the year 1536.  Dramatically it was a compelling series of plays and street scenarios that brought these historic events to life.[31] Thomas Cromwell was a prominent figure in each of the queen’s stories, announcing that Queen Katherine of Aragon was on her deathbed, interrogating Queen Anne’s ladies in Queen Anne’s Arrest and being honored with the noble title Baron of Oakham as part of Jane’s Betrothal.   Mr. Kirkpatrick related that as Cromwell’s power grew he was shown at one point sitting in the King’s throne issuing orders.  In another example, Queen Anne hurled curses and accusations at him as he followed her in procession as she exited the festival on her way to imprisonment in the Tower of London.[32]
It was the following season that gave Mr. Kirkpatrick the opportunity to show Thomas Cromwell in his villainous glory.  The 2005 season focused on The Lost Princess.[33]  The year portrayed was 1537, although the main storyline, the return of the Lady Mary, daughter of King Henry VIII and Queen Katherine of Aragon to court, historically took place in the year 1536.  Cromwell was tasked with obtaining the written capitulation of the Lady Mary that accepted that her father was now head of the Church of England and that her mother’s marriage was unlawful and incestuous making herself illegitimate. [34]  Mr. Kirkpatrick recalled, “The scripts had Cromwell accompanied by Sir Richard Southwell, who indeed served as his henchman, grim-faced and ready to urge violence.”[35]
Mr. Kirkpatrick’s own research on Cromwell revealed that the “speculation about Cromwell’s early years and possible mercenary work in Italy, would have accounted for the violence that was revealed in the Lady Mary interrogation.”[36] He ultimately did not see Thomas Cromwell as an “outright villain,” but “as some one for whom gaining power and influence over people was enough of a kick that he couldn’t help himself.”[37]

I have served my Lord with all my mind and spirit.  I am no traitor!
Thomas Cromwell, Cromwell’s Dream by Carolyn Spedden[38]

As with Thomas Plott, Steven Kirkpatrick also portrayed the fall of Thomas Cromwell from power.  His experience was unique, as his character was not actually arrested for treason.  Instead the stage play Cromwell’s Dream written by Carolyn Spedden dramatized the events leading up to and including the arrest.  Thomas Cromwell, working tirelessly at his desk fell asleep.  In his dream state his enemies at court confronted him for his treasonous behavior.  Cromwell awoke from his nightmare, uneasy with the specter of the axe haunting his soul. 
When asked to reflect on his four seasons as Thomas Cromwell, Mr. Kirkpatrick mentioned that the most vivid patron interactions were based on audience members mistaking Thomas Cromwell for Oliver Cromwell.  Oliver Cromwell, a descendant of Thomas Cromwell’s sister, is reviled for his treatment of the Irish.  “Those were the only times I received outright reactions or negative comments…However, there were always a few savvy patrons who know the history and who might sidle up to me—especially after a court show—and say ‘You’ll get yours one day, you know.’”[39]

“Those who are made can be unmade.”
Anne Boleyn, Bring Up the Bodies by Hillary Mantel[40]

As in all stories of good versus evil, the bad guy loses in the end.  The real Thomas Cromwell was arrested while attending a Privy Council meeting on June 10, 1540. An Act of Attainder of treason and heresy passed by Parliament convicted him, a process he himself had promoted as a way to bypass the need for a trial.  Kept alive long enough to assist from his cell in the Tower of London with the annulment of the King’s marriage to Queen Anna of Cleves he was executed by beheading on July 28, 1540, the same day that the King married his fifth queen, Katharine Howard.[41] Thomas Cromwell’s newest biographer, Diarmaid MacCulloch writes in the March 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine that Cromwell’s fall and death were caused by four factors.  The first factor is the one that is most famous and the primary reason used in fictional portrayals, the arrangement of the King’s marriage to Anna of Cleves.  Secondly, and this is a new revelation, Cromwell angered Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk by ignoring the Duke’s wishes for Thetford Priory, traditional burial place of the Howard family and coincidentally the burial place for he King’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset.  Norfolk wished to have the priory converted to a college of priests.  Cromwell closed the priory in February 1540 and Norfolk was forced to relocate his family’s tombs 35 miles away to Framlingham.  Third, in March 1540, John Bourchier, 15th Earl of Essex died and the King granted his ancient title to Cromwell.  Lastly, John de Vere, 15th Earl of Oxford died, the hereditary Great Chamberlain of England one of the oldest royal offices.   The King granted it to Cromwell.[42] The blacksmith’s son from Putney had angered the aristocracy one too many times and they were able to persuade the King to put an end to Cromwell.
Thomas Cromwell is a complex character that makes for a fascinating villain from Tudor England.   He can be the consummate villain of such plays as Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons or Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn.  Alternatively he is a more complicated man, whether in the novels of Hillary Mantel or the television series The Six Wives of Henry VIII and  The Tudors. 
There is continued interest in Thomas Cromwell thanks to new scholarship in the guise of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s soon to be released biography and Hilary Mantel’s planned novel relating the end of his life.  As the Maryland Renaissance Festival cycles its way through the 1520’s and 30’s for the third time you can be assured that Thomas Cromwell will reappear in the tales told of King Henry VIII’s court.  It will be fascinating to see whether he will once again be the Darth Vader-like terror embodied by Thomas Plott or the smooth, coy snake of Steven Kirkpatrick.  One can look forward to the return of Thomas Cromwell to the cast of the Maryland Renaissance Festival.  Perhaps he will emerge in a third manner as a new actor puts his own memorable interpretation on the streets of Revel Grove.

“Men so noble, however faulty, yet should find respect for what they have been.”
---Cromwell, Henry VIII by William Shakespeare[43]

[1] William Shakespeare, Much Adoe About Nothing, Applause First Folio Edition, (New York: Applause Theatre Books, 2001) 13
[2] Robert Bolt, A Man For All Seasons, (New York: Vintage Books: 1960), 41
[3] Bolt 41
[4] The Tudors.  Directors various. (Showtime, TM Productions Limited/PA Tudors Inc. An Ireland-Canada Co-Production), 2007-2009
[5] The Six Wives of Henry VIII.
[6] John Foxe. The Unabridged Actes and Monuments Online or TAMO. (Sheffield: HRI Online Publications) 1563 Edition, Book 3  578-589
[7] Nicholas Sander, Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism,  Google Play Digital Edition (London: Burns and Oates, 1877) 253
[8] Shakespeare, William. Henry VIII or All Is True, Folger Shakespeare Edition (New York: Washington Square Press, 2007) 153-159
[9] Philippa Gregory, The Other Boleyn Girl, (New York: Touchstone, 2001) 589
[10] Eric Ives. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2004) 296-298
[11] Claire Ridgway. The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown, Kindle Edition (MadeGlobal Publishing: April 2012) 17-19.
[12] 2012
[13] Dr. Kimberly Tony Korol-Evans, Renaissance Festivals: Merrying The Past And Present, (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc., 2009) 123
[14] Korol-Evans 123
[15] Nick McCarty, The Six Wives of Henry VIII: Anne Boleyn, BBC 1970, DVD 2000
[16] Hutchinson, Robert. Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Minister, (London: Phoenix, 2008)  7-9
[17] Hutchinson 10
[18] Hutchinson 10
[19] Hutchinson 13-17
[20] Field, Mike, Cromwell’s Ghost (Crownsville, MD: Maryland Renaissance Festival 1994
[21] Field notes, interview with Mary Ann Jung, March 2013
[22] Field notes, interview with Thomas Plott, March 2013
[23] Field, March 2013
[24] Plott, March 2013
[25] Plott, March 2013
[26] Plott, March 2013
[27] Brenton, Howard, Anne Boleyn,  Kindle Edition (London: Nick Hern Books, 2012) 113
[28] Field notes, interview with Steven Kirkpatrick, March 2013
[29] Kirkpatrick, March 2013
[31] Korol-Evans, 128-144
[32] Field notes. Interview with Steven Kirkpatrick.
[34] Porter, Linda. The First Queen of England, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007) 118-125
[35] Kirkpatrick March 2013
[36] Kirkpatrick, March 2013
[37] Kirkpatrick, March 2013
[38] Spedden Carolyn, Cromwell’s Dream, (Crownsville, MD: Maryland Renaissance Festival, 2007)
[39] Kirkpatrick, March 2013
[40] Mantel, Hillary,  Bring Up the Bodies, Kindle Edition, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC., 2012) 110
[41] Hutchinson, 238-263
[42] MacCulloch, Diarmaid. “Thomas Cromwell: a Thug in a Doublet?”, BBC History Magazine, Ipad Edition (Bristol: Immediate Media Company Bristol Ltd., March 2013) 29-33
[43] Shakespeare, Henry VIII, 215


A Man For All Seasons. (1966) Director Fred Zimmerman.  Columbia Pictures.
Anderson, Maxwell. Anne of the Thousand Days. New York: Dramatists Play Service, Inc. 1948,1950, 1977.
Anne of the Thousand Days (1969). Director Charles Jarrott. Universal Pictures.
Bolt, Robert. A Man For All Seasons. New York: Vintage Books. 1960, 1962.
Brenton, Howard. Anne Boleyn.  London: Nick Hern Books. Kindle Edition. 2012.
Field, Mike. Cromwell’s Ghost. Crownsville, MD: Maryland Renaissance Festival. 1994.
Gregory, Philippa. The Other Boleyn Girl. New York: Touchstone. 2001.
Hutchinson, Robert. Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Minister. London: Phoenix. 2008.
Ives, Eric W. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing. 2004.
Korol-Evans, Dr. Kimberly Tony. Renaissance Festivals: Merrying the Past and Present. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 2009.
Mantel, Hilary. Bring Up the Bodies. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Kindle Edition. 2012
Mantel, Hilary. Wolf Hall. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC. 2009
MacCulloch, Diarmaid. “Thomas Cromwell: a thug in a doublet?” BBC History Magazine. Immediate Media Company Bristol Ltd. Ipad Edition. March 2013.
Porter, Linda. The First Queen of England. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 2007.
Ridgway, Claire. The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown.  MadeGlobal Publishing: Kindle Edition. April 2012.
Sander, Nicholas. Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism. Google Play Digital Edition. London: Burns and Oates. 1877.
Shakespeare, William. Henry VIII or All Is True. Folger Shakespeare Library Edition. New York: Washington Square Press.  2007
Shakespeare, William. Much Adoe About Nothing. Applause First Folio Editions. New York: Applause Theatre Books. 2001.
Spedden, Carolyn. Cromwell’s Dream. Crownsville, MD: Maryland Renaissance Festival. 2007
The Six Wives of Henry VIII: Anne Boleyn.  (1970) Director Naomi Capon BBC DVD edition 2000.
The Tudors. (2007-2010). Various Directors. Showtime, TM Productions Limited/PA Tudors Inc./An Ireland-Canada Coproduction.
Foxe, John. The Unabridged Actes and Monuments Online or TAMO. HRI Online Publications. Sheffield.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Custom of The Country at the American Shakespeare Center

During the Actors' Renaissance Season at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia, the acting company has the freedom to interpret the plays they perform without the guidance or hindrance of a director's vision. This can lead to revelatory performances allowing the audience to see a familiar Shakespeare play in a new light. When the play is one that has not been fully produced since the 17th century it can either breathe new life into that work or, if the staging choices are not cohesive and can lead to an uneven theatrical experience.

The later is the case with John Fletcher and Philip Massinger's The Custom of the Country. This is the most adult themed play in this Actors' Renaissance Season and the least produced work. The acting company has enthusiastically embraced the absurdities in this convoluted melodramatic story of torn-asunder lovers and their arduous journey back into each others arms. The problem is that there are two distinct styles on view on the Blackfriar's stage. While the production is enjoyable, parts of the story are rendered somewhat confusing and uneven.

Arnoldo and Zenocia are in love and intend to marry. Count Clodio, the Italian governor, desires Zenocia and wants to marry her. Despite the pleas of Zenocia's father, Charino, Arnoldo and Zenocia still plan to wed. Count Clodio has the right to sleep with any bride upon her wedding night. In order to thwart this custom, Arnoldo and Zenocia flee Italy.  Arriving in Portugal, Zenocia is captured by the sea captain, Leopold and given to his lady love, Hippolyta as a servant. Arnoldo and his brother Rutilio also wash ashore in Portugal.

Hippolyta's servant, Zabulon brings Arnoldo to Hippolyta who tries to seduce him.  Rutilio ends up in a duel with the proud Duarte, kills him, after Duarte's mother Guiomar takes pity on him Rutilio flees. Foolishly returning to woo Guiomar, Rutilio is captured. Sulpitia, who runs a male brothel and frees Rutilio to work for her.  Hippolyta, discovering that her servant Zenocia is Arnoldo's love plots Zenocia's demise. There are attempted murders, magic potions, changes of heart, recoveries and reunions before Arnoldo and Zenocia can have a chance at happily ever after.

There is a lot to keep straight in this play. The notes in the program will assist in giving the basic plot and who is whom. The actors have clearly delighted in coming up for some over-the-top stagings of some of the more absurd scenes. Highlights include the preparation for Zenocia's mournful wedding night and a ribald scene involving the overworked men of Sulpitia's brothel.

The problem lies in that our main characters, Grant Davis' Arnoldo and Tracie Thomason's Zenocia, seem to belong to a different play. This is the natural outcome of being the straight men surrounded by many outrageous supporting characters. As a result, those supporting characters are much more interesting than the plight of our hero and heroine. Perhaps if the actors heightened the melodrama in their own story the characters would feel a more cohesive part of this production. Mr. Davis and Ms. Thomason are noble and earnest performers, but they are upstaged by the rest of the company.

Rene Thornton, Jr. is appropriately menacing as the lascivious Count Clodio. Daniel Kennedy brings a mournful aspect to Zenocia's father, Charino. John Harrell tempers the Jewish Zabulon so that while he is a sleazy character, he doesn't register as the stereotypical money-hungry Jew common to plays of the period.  Sarah Fallon channels a bit of Mae West in her lusty Hippolyta and Abbi Hawk seems to revel in the power held by the bawd Sulpitia.

Allison Glenzer seems straight out of a Harlequin romance as the mother desiring revenge for her son's death who finds herself strangely attracted to her son's murderer. Chris Johnston brings pompous bravado to the hot head Duarte.  Mr. Johnston's duel with Benjamin Curns' Rutilio is heart stopping  Mr. Curns will bring tears of laughter amidst the melodrama as he complains of his treatment as a popular stud. Even though Rutilio's story is the secondary one, it is the most fun to watch.

It should be obvious that this is the most mature material being performed during this Actors' Renaissance Season. The title alludes to the ability of a noble lord to rape young women on their wedding night. The play contains a male brothel and many other references that are not appropriate for young children.  It should be fine for mature teenagers.

John Fletcher and Philip Massinger's The Custom of the Country is being performed as part of the Actors' Renaissance Season through April 6, 2013. During the Actors' Renaissance Season there are no directors or designers and the rehearsal process is a matter of days.  The Custom of the Country is being presented in repertory with William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Shakespeare and Fletcher's Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen and William Wycherley's The Country Wife. For tickets and other performance information please visit

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Henry VIII at The American Shakespeare Center

It is not often that one gets to see a professional production of William Shakespeare and John Fletcher's play Henry VIII.   It is even rarer to have the opportunity to see two productions that take different approaches to the material in the past three theatrical seasons.   The first was the Folger Theater production in the fall of 2010, which added characters and colored the ending with a touch of historical reality.  The American Shakespeare Center's approach, as part of its Actors' Renaissance Season, is much more traditional, showcasing the drama and pageantry in a manner that gives the audience a staging that is true to the material.

As a history play, Henry VIII is really a history pageant.  The drama is more of a greatest hits of 1521-1533, with a couple of additions from the later years of King Henry VIII's reign that bring closure to the theatrical story.  It is filled with vignettes that would have been well known to the Jacobean audience and is particularly flattering to the late Queen Elizabeth I whose death brought the current King James VI and I to the throne.  The script can be challenging with its various members of the court. The downfall and subsequent demise of several characters can be confusing as they occur with very little dramatic set-up.

This production is simply delightful. The company of actors makes the story so clear that a novice with no knowledge of the life and times of King Henry VIII could easily follow the story.  Costuming themselves with items from the costuming stock, most of the pieces are Tudor/Elizabethan and a crown or jeweled badge of office assist in helping the audience keep track of who is noble, who is peasant and who is a member of the clergy.

Henry VIII begins with the arrest of the Duke of Buckingham, accused of treason for wanting the throne for himself. His demise has been orchestrated by Cardinal Wolsey who corruptly attempts to rule the kingdom and control King Henry.  Henry is long married to Queen Katherine of Aragon, but her many pregnancies have left the king without a male heir. At a party at Cardinal Wolsey's the king arrives in disguise and becomes enchanted with Anne Bullen. Desiring Anne, he soon makes her Marchioness of Pembroke.

The king's conscience is troubled by the fact that he married his brother's widow. Sending to Rome for judgment Cardinal Campeius arrives to judge the king's divorce proceedings along with Cardinal Wolsey.  Queen Katherine gives an impassioned speech directly to her husband and invokes the right to appeal to Rome.  Cardinal Wolsey's enemies use his failure to show the king that Wolsey is corrupt.  Wolsey is stripped of his offices and soon dies.

Meanwhile Thomas Cranmer is appointed Archbishop of Canterbury and grants the king his divorce. In the midst of the splendid pageantry of Anne Bullen's coronation, plots are hatched against Cranmer accusing him of heresy.  The aftermath leads to King Henry asserting total command of his noble councilors. Henry awaits the birth of his hoped for heir.

Several of the company portray multiple roles.  Gregory Jon Phelps with little stage time manages to give great pathos to the fallen Duke of Buckingham and then returns as Buckingham's son-in-law the Earl of Surrey filled with rage, desiring justice against Cardinal Wolsey. Abby Hawk is forceful as the Duke of Suffolk, a councilor praying for Wolsey's fall.  With a clear voice she musically soothes the exiled Queen Katherine particularly when Katherine dreams of a heavenly reward.

Allison Glenzer provides her usual comic flair as the lascivious Old Lady counseling Anne Bullen to accept the great wealth and titles that come with the king's desire. Yet, it is her ardent devotion as Wolsey's loyal servant, Thomas Cromwell that will bring a tear to your eye even as the corrupt Wolsey gets his comeuppance. As Wolsey, John Harrell is not the twirling, obvious villain of some productions of this play. He uses words to create a smooth-talking villain who subtly manipulates king and country to maintain his power. When Wolsey falls, in Mr. Harrell's hands Wolsey gains the audience's sympathy.

There are three characters who are written in a very saintly manner. The first is Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. Ronald Peet is a gentle, honest Cranmer who genuinely does not know how to dissemble in front of his determined enemy, Grant Davis' Bishop Gardiner. The second is Tracie Thomason's Anne Bullen. Shakespeare and Fletcher's Anne is not the calculating schemer like that of recent fictional depictions of Anne Bullen.  This Anne is genuinely shocked by her royal suitor's favor and remains mournful of the downfall of her mistress Queen Katherine. Both characters could be bland in the wrong hands, yet with their mastery of the script, Mr. Peet and Ms. Thomason create characters that matter to the story.

The most saintly character is also the most riveting portrayal on the Blackfriar's stage. Sarah Fallon takes Katherine of Aragon and makes the audience greatly saddened by her treatment in the divorce proceedings and her subsequent exile. Ms. Fallon's delivery of Queen Katherine's famous speech during the divorce proceedings is humble, yet forceful.  For this production it was decided to have Ms. Fallon deliver the prologue and epilogue that frame the drama. This is inspired as it gives a particular pathos to the entire play, as the words of the prologue and epilogue genuinely seem geared to the feminine perspective.

And as for King Henry VIII himself? The role is not the leading part, yet the specter of the king is ever present throughout the entire play. It calls for an actor who can command the stage when he appears. Benjamin Curns does that with charm, menace, and charisma as his King Henry grows from the young king willing to allow Wolsey to rule for him to a true absolute monarch by the end of the play.

Henry VIII by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher is being performed at the American Shakespeare Center as part of the Actor's Renaissance Season.  During the season, there are no directors or designers  and rehearsals are in a matter of days.  Henry VIII is being performed in repertory with William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare and John Fletcher's The Two Noble Kinsmen, William Wycherley's The Country Wife and John Fletcher and Philip Massinger's The Custom of the Country through April 5, 2013. For tickets and other performance information please visit