Is “Wolf Hall, I & II”
“An Act of God,” or
. . . something else?
by TONY VELLELA
If you listen very, very closely, you may be able to hear the sounds of
someone [that would be yours truly] going ‘against the grain,’ as they say.
One of Broadway’s most eagerly-anticipated theatrical events of this or any other season, the importing of the Royal Shakespeare Company Production of “Wolf Hall: Parts One & Two,” has settled in at the Winter Garden. Based on Hilary Mantel’s multi-award-winning pair of novels “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” the plays are running in rep, with Mantel listed as the playwright, and Mike Poulton credited with the adaptation.
An energetic ensemble cast of twenty-three inhabits the scabrous environs of 16th century Britain’s royal court. The ever-imposing King Henry VIII [an imposing Nathaniel Parker] is in an almost constant state of bereavement because his Queen has not supplied a male heir to his Tudor throne. And the ever-watchful, ever-scheming lawyer-at-court Thomas Cromwell [Ben Miles, with easy confidence serving the role well] seems to pop up everywhere necessary, like a whack-a-mole in cape and leggings, to attempt to remedy the situation and at the same time, maintain his envied position as the one man who can always gain access to His Majesty’s ear.
The grand sweep of the interwoven personal and political tales, stretching as they do from the fall from grace of Queen Katherine of Aragon, [Lucy Briers, showing touchingly her character’s resignation tempering the cursed hand she’s been dealt] to the rise and bloody descent of her wily successor, Anne Boleyn, [Lydia Leonard, snarky before there was such an adjective] fills both plays to overflowing, clocking in together at nearly six-and-a-half hours. Others have noted in commentary better written than I am capable of generating, that a great deal of the dialogue starts with “I hear,” or “they say.” And there’s the rub. For a very large portion of the time spent in attendance at both parts, what ‘they’ said was something that I could not hear.
Carefully combing through all the emotions and agendas, the seductions and the confessions, the taunting and the appeasements, adapter Poulton has applied the surgeon’s scalpel and the calligrapher’s quill to all this information, a task only a very few writers would have the skill and the courage to attempt. And he has, it would seem, managed to retain not just the headlines, but the complete accounts, including sidebars, of these stories, a dutiful court reporter, if you will. And he is not without a sense of dry humor – one of his best moments slides in very unobtrusively when, at the close of Part One’s first act, an unimposing little slip of a thing responds to a question of her identity by responding modestly “Oh, I’m nobody. I’m only Jane Seymour.” The lady will be the next to occupy the throne to Henry’s right.
The production’s design elements adhere faithfully to the less-is-more school of theatrical presentation: all but bare stage, except for the occasional piece of furniture required when someone needs to sit, or something needs to rest upon a surface; attention-focusing lighting [expertly delivered by Part One: Paule Constable, Part Two: David Plater] that assists in telling you where to look and who is speaking, and a dazzling display of the greatest array of heavy-brocade, silky-fabric, fur-trimmed, jewel-encrusted costuming [compliments of Christopher Oram, who also designed the sets – less there to distract from the costumes?] ever seen in a production that does not include singing and an eleven o’clock number.
The promise of the chance to bathe in the gossipy-style revelations of this historically critical period in western civilization, the expectation that we will witness lethal clashes between the low-born and the highly-placed, the anticipation ginned up with the sterling credentials of its creators on and off stage – all that, held out to theatre-goers hungry for what all that could satisfy . . . and then, what happens? Clearly, obviously, certainly, all the stories have been honored. There are twenty-three named court members, from King Henry VIII down to a musician, Mark, each of whom can lay claim to being a Duke, a Lord, a Lady, an Earl, a member of the Boleyn family, or one of their servants. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, a prime mover in Henry’s clash with the Pope over the subject of divorce, and half a dozen other clergy or officers of state, constitute another dozen or so characters with roles to play and words to say. And at the epicenter of all the intrigue, active or passive, is Thomas Cromwell [and his family and staff]. One begins to ache – really, ache – when the difficulties of trying to follow the machinations unfolding on the cavernous set begin to take their toll. This issue may not receive much attention in polite discourse, but how is it that director Jeremy Herrin, a much-honored member of London and West End A-listers, would not realize that language so well-sculpted, delivered anywhere but straight-on and loud, will just not be able to be heard well enough to be understood? This failing, coupled with the near absence of visual cues as to who’s who [all we have are costumes] means we have been left outside the action. We can see compelling confrontations, we can hear inflections that indicate anger or jealousy or lust or compliance, but we [at least not yours truly] were not able to match emotion to situation, or speaker to listener. This results in lots of loss. Rich language dissipates. And more seriously, facts are also lost. Taking one of the most basic: why did the house of Boleyn hold such a privileged position that gave them an E-Z pass to the King’s short list of prospective brides? Not an avid student of history myself, the assumption that an audience member would blindly accept that condition, at the core of the dynamics this vast drama depicts, suggests a kind of elitist attitude that poisons the proceedings.
This glossing-over of primary conditions, or the idea that they are not able to create a dynasty or cause a regent-pretender to part company with her head, is not inherent in the tales being told. There is an crucial difference between these stage adaptations, and the recent television and feature film versions of roughly the same tales [notably the BBC Two television series top-lining Mark Rylance as Cromwell, and the 2008 picture “The Other Boleyn Girl,” also with Rylance, and Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson as the sisters Boleyn]. Film/video cameras show us where to look, who is speaking, and with necessary visual detail, where we are. Is theatre different? Of course. And it should be. But not at the expense of experiencing the real rewards of powerful, compelling story-telling. It’s not enough to know that they are telling the story. We must be able to hear it.
What does Dr. Sheldon Cooper have in common with Dolly Gallagher Levi and the King of Siam? Like that Empress of the Harmonia Gardens and the ruler of a proud southeast Asian monarchy, the mega-watt-brained physicist Cooper is also the central character in a work of popular culture [the funniest, modern-ist television sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.” Dolly lives in the Jerry Herman musical “Hello, Dolly!” and the King in the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic “The King & I”].
And like the other two larger-than-life characters, Cooper’s real-life counterpart is identified with one actor. Cooper’s real person is actor Jim Parsons, who has received four Emmy Awards for playing the role, just like the much-awarded Carol Channing and Yul Brynner for their career-defining performances as the above-mentioned.
And now, that beloved and exasperating physicist has landed on the East Coast – at Studio 54 to be precise – as the central stand-in for the Almighty in David Javerbaum’s delightful new comedy “An Act of God.” The Big Guy has chosen to revisit our home planet in the guise of this sitcom star, and we’re the better for that choice. Who are we to argue with BG?
Director Joe Mantello, wisely assisted by set designer Scott Pask with production design chores from Peter Nigrini, makes it very easy for us to bask in His revelations, even when they are less than revealing. God did, however, reveal Himself to be a savvy Superior Being with his choice of Parsons to be his human host. Parsons [could that ecclesiastical-sounding last name have given the actor an advantage?] possesses that rare combination of stage-friendly qualities: a measure of self-confidence that does not tip the balance over into arrogance; a firm, direct ability to master the task of having his voice reach to the back of the house; the invisible wink to the audience that lets us know we’re all in this together, and finally, he’s cute as a baby’s belly button.
Turns out God’s got some unburdening to do. He’s not happy with how we’re doing as the resident population of this particular planet. He’s also very not happy with all those myths and mysteries attributed to him and his contemporaries. And one by one, and even two by two [he corrects that Big One about a wooden boat and a pair of every known type of living thing crammed on it], he dissects and corrects. He’s also gracious enough, due to precise comedy timing, to give us time to laugh ourselves silly between pronouncements.
Gabriel and Michael, his angelic pair of wing-men [get it? angels? wings?] assist, when necessary. Tim Kazurinsky’s Gabriel keeps watch over the Bible, with God acknowledging that, ever since Guttenberg ran it off, it’s been downhill for publishing ever since. And Christopher Fitzgerald’s Michael proves to be almost too frisky and contrarian as the bad boy brat, sewing a few too many seeds of discontent that leaves God with no choice but to clip his wing.
In what may be the consequence of the popularity of Letterman’s ‘Top Ten’ lists, God unveils His new set of commandments. Not enumerated but definitely apparent, this one: Thou Shalt Not Miss This Show.
Technically not a theatre book, “The Science of TV’s ‘the Big Bang Theory’ – Explanations Even Penny Would Understand,” by Dave Zobel, walks us through the actual science behind all those formulas on the white boards in Sheldon and Leonard’s apartment. Dotted with dialogue from various episodes, from ECW Press, it’s a rousing browser of a book, that will make you appreciate just how smart this show is, and marvel at how it can be that, and also be so damn funny . . . and lest you be discouraged about not seeing [or hearing] the “Wolf Hall” plays on stage, you would certainly do well to pick up the print versions of the playscripts penned by Hilary Mantel, from her pair of award-winning novels “Wolf Hall,” and “Bring Up the Bodies.” A Nick Hern book from Fourth Estate, London, the stage version from adaptor Mike Poulton proves to be compelling reading, in large part because the front of the book includes five pages of detailed descriptions of who the players are
. . . and finally, it was sad news indeed to learn of the passing of actor/playwright/comedy icon Anne Meara. With a smile and a wit as dazzling as her bright red hair, Anne instinctively, naturally made you feel comfortable. My visits with her were always enjoyable, always laced with laughter. To share that legacy, pick up her husband of sixty-plus years Jerry Stiller’s “Married to Laughter – A Love Story Featuring Anne Meara,” from Simon & Schuster.
TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series on theatre, “Character Studies.” His New York International Fringe Festival Best Play “Admissions” is published by Playscripts. His comedy “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by Art Age Press. He has covered theatre and the performing arts for dozens of publications, including Dramatics Magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, Parade, Rolling Stone, etc. His new play “Labor Days” is on track for a production in the fall.
Exclusive car and limousine transportation provider for Intermission Talk is Manhattan-based NewApp CarLimo [www.NewAppCarLimo.com = 212-222-7999].