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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.
What stops The King's Mare from becoming a light sexist farce is director Hall's endeavor to milk it for all the low comedy possible, allowing his actors to dive headfirst into it as though it were Your Show of Shows. Costume designer Penny Koleos Williams has outfitted her 16th-century charges in lavish dress seemingly inspired by the well-known Holbein portraits of the Tudor court. But she's also pushing the ridiculousness of, say, Anne's headdress so that it seems equally to refer to Tenniel's illustrations of the ugly duchess in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Dimon, of course, isn't ugly, but she has one of those gifted plastic faces that can make itself the mirror of her character's sad-sack emotions, to marvelous effect.
Michael O. Smith infuses King Henry with a Falstaffian charm. He may be a pig, but he's an endearing pig. Smith's Henry consorts with a mistress -- Kathryn Howard, niece of the Duke of Norfolk -- right under Anne's nose. But his dalliances seem as much a rebellion against those court ministers united in "a conspiracy against my bachelorhood" as an active disrespect for his marriage. "I refuse to wallow in any more marriage beds," he declares at the play's onset, giving a little shudder at the memory of his previous wife named Anne (Boleyn).
Around these two, John Felix's Sir Thomas Wriothsley hovers like a nervous bumblebee, one who has more than tiny inkling of the historical significance of any fumble he might make. (The hapless Wriothsley is the one who ends up in bed with the couple, translating for them on their wedding night.) Around Felix and Smith revolve a cadre of supporting players, all excellent, from Joy Johnson's Lady Osenbruk and Dan Leonard's Master Holbein to John Fitzgibbon's Prime Minister Cromwell, John Fionte's Duke of Norfolk, and George Kapetan's Archbishop Cranmer. With all this talent waiting on the king and queen, I only wished they were serving a better play.
The King's Mare.
Written by Oscar E. Moore. Directed by Michael Hall. Starring Elizabeth Dimon, Michael O. Smith, John Fitzgibbon, George Kapetan, John Felix, John Fionte, Dan Leonard, Coleen McDermott, and Joy Johnson. Through May 23. Caldwell Theatre Company, 7873 N. Federal Hwy., Boca Raton, 561-241-7432.