By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Kyle Swenson
By David Villano
By Kyle Swenson
By John Thomason
By Michele Eve
If Sid Caesar had ever performed a sketch about Henry VIII, it might have resembled the hilarious second act of The King's Mare, Oscar E. Moore's bio-comedy about the Tudor monarch and his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. The entire play is now enjoying a high-spirited world premiere at Boca Raton's Caldwell Theatre Company, chock full of top-drawer South Florida actors, including Elizabeth Dimon and Michael O. Smith as the unfortunate couple. But it's only the middle section -- an anarchic, slightly ribald investigation of a royal wedding night -- that gives the immensely talented Caldwell cast an opportunity to indulge in superb comic inventiveness. Few similar opportunities for brilliance lurk in or near the rest of the play.
Set in the royal bedchamber on Anne and Henry's first night together, the scene begins with the promise of sex and moves on to a discussion of heraldry, then quickly turns into a demented version of gin rummy, replete with nonsense words, bizarre game rules, and a general sense that avoiding the conjugal task at hand is in everyone's best interests. The skit delivers the sort of adrenaline-filled theatergoing experience that comes along all too seldom. I for one hope I never forget the incomparable vision of actress Dimon playing Anne like an overstuffed pillow come to life, entertaining her new husband by reproducing the battle cries of famous European army battalions.
Nothing else gets reproduced in this wedding bed. In real life Henry had the marriage annulled on the grounds that it was never consummated. But the Caldwell production, helmed by artistic director Michael Hall, is a breeding ground for comic possibilities. Did I mention that a translator (the delicious John Felix) is also in bed with the couple, necessary because Henry speaks no Flemish and Anne no English? Nearly impossible to convey on the written page because of its dependence on maniacally funny facial expressions and whiplash timing, the scene makes sitting through the comparatively lame first and third acts well worth the time.
Just how did we get to this bedchamber scene anyway? Henry, of course, is the king whose disposal of his wives inspired the mnemonic schoolyard chant: "Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived." By the time this scene comes to pass, Henry has recently disposed of third wife Jane Seymour. He has belligerently agreed to marry Anne, a Belgian princess, because he understands that not doing so would risk widespread war in Europe. The monarch's infamous rejection of the Catholic Church and embrace of divorce laws had by this time made him immensely unpopular in Catholic countries such as France and Spain. (His appetite, on the other hand, has merely made him immense.) Thus he has been persuaded by his advisors to follow the route to peace via the altar.
Anne of Cleves was the fourth wife, the second "divorced" queen. As the play opens, Henry is about to accept Anne sight unseen. His only clue to her physical attributes is what he can glean from a miniature by court painter Holbein the Younger. The tiny dimensions of her portrait hide the fact that Anne is a singularly unattractive woman -- hence her nickname, "the Flanders Mare." Henry's courtiers scurry to keep Henry from dismissing her as a potential queen by promoting her other virtues. For example, one of them points out that she is "an excellent embroiderer." Needlepoint, of course, doesn't help the virginal Anne navigate the expectations of the marriage bed or her obnoxious husband. When the confused new queen wonders if the king wishes the translator to carry out the husband's marriage-bed duties, Henry asks him, "Would you mind?"
As you have probably guessed by now, Moore's play, adapted from Jean Canolle's 1957 political drama La Jument du Roi, is essentially a one-joke comedy about the fate of a man forced into matrimony with a woman he finds repulsive. Moore does not dwell on the notion that Anne might have found Henry similarly wanting in the looks department. It's a man's play, after all, much in the sense that the 16th Century universe was a man's world. (Moore is an erstwhile antique-shop owner and would-be actor who once appeared in a revival of Call Me Madam with Ethel Merman at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. The King's Mare is his first professional production. His next work -- are you sitting down? -- is a musical comedy based on Antigone.)
In crafting a play about a man who must marry an ugly woman, it seems to me that Moore has given up a chance to write a strong female character. What could be funnier than a woman who stands up to Henry VIII? The mind reels at the possibilities if, say, Joan Rivers had done a riff on this, or Wendy Wasserstein had written a full-length comedy. In Moore's hands Anne's fate is the stuff of one-liners. When her lady in waiting suggests that England is a nice place to live, Anne retorts, "If I live." With facile exchanges like this one, the play keeps us at arm's length, where we're unable to bond with its characters, no matter how appealing they may seem or how funny their predicaments. This is a story in which the running joke is the queen's inability to keep herself from falling over every time she curtsies.