November 28, 2014
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Theater review
Gamm scores big with ‘Anne Boleyn’
Don Fowler

Of all the great theatres in Rhode Island, Gamm gets my vote for Best Play Selection. Artistic Director Tony Estrella has a keen eye and ability for choosing outstanding, provocative, entertaining plays, many of which have not be seen in Rhode Island before.

Estrella scored really big this time with the U.S. premiere of British playwright Howard Brenton’s “Anne Boleyn,” hit of two seasons at London’s Globe Theatre.

While most of us find our knowledge of English history limited (I can’t tell the difference between Kings James and Henry or Queens Anne and Elizabeth), Brenton’s script helps us sort things out a bit. Estrella also gives us a “Who’s Who in Anne Bolleyn” in the program, which you should read before the two-act play.

The play opens with the title character standing under a spotlight, teasing the audience with what’s in her bag. She shows us two items that play heavily in the story.

Lights out. King James I (Tony Estrella) appears. He is of a later period and ponders over Boleyn’s true character and influence.

Lights out. We are now in the court of King Henry VIII (Steve Kidd). He is unsuccessful in convincing the Pope to annul his marriage to Catherine so he can marry Anne Boleyn. Poor, conniving Anne is not well liked, thought to be a witch or a word close to witch and (gasp) a whore. She sees perseverance as her strongest virtue and becomes the king’s mistress and strongest influence. She rejects the control of the Catholic Church as interpreted by the powerful Cardinal Wolsey (Tom Gleadow), who wants to condemn William Tyndale’s (Joe Short) anti-Catholic book, even though he hasn’t read it. Boleyn has a strong influence over her king, convincing him that he and he alone answers to God.

The second act opens with some interesting religious arguments and a powerful scene where King James travels into the past in a drunken stupor and connects with Anne.

While there is a great deal of poetic license taken by the author, it sure makes for interesting, provocative and very funny theatre. You will love some characters and despise others. You will laugh at their follies and at times struggle a bit to put the pieces together.

While Anne is best remembered for losing her head, you’ll get a different perspective on the woman who influenced the change in British religious history…and have fun witnessing it.

Set designer Jessica Hill makes good use of the small stage area using curtain backdrops effectively, and the always taken-for-granted lighting designer John Boomer adds much to the production, along with terrific period costumes by David T. Howard. Director Rachel Walshe is quickly gaining a reputation for making tough productions look easy. Scene changes are handled smoothly and, at times, humorously.

The cast of 14 – over half equity actors – shines in their roles, no matter how small. Brown/Trinity MFA grad, Madeleine Lambert is perfect for the part of Anne Boleyn, showing her sexy, smart, boastful and intelligent moments.

Kidd makes the perfect king and Gleadow the perfect pompous Cardinal. Regular Jim O’Brien has a more difficult role as Thomas Cromwell and handles it with his usual talents. Sam Babbitt, one of those equally talented actors who can make you laugh with a simple glance or gesture, shines as King James’ aide.

And then there’s Estrella, who is a treat anytime he is on stage. Wait until you see him and Joe Short in the beginning of Act 2. Estrella added six additional performances of “Anne Boleyn” due to exceptionally large ticket sales, before it was even reviewed by the press. (So much for the power of the press).

“Anne Boleyn” is now at Gamm through February 24. For tickets call 723-4266.


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