Though it all went down nearly 500 years ago, the tempestuous, world-changing romance between England's King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, remains an eternally compelling topic. It's juicy royal drama that seems to make great, well, drama, no matter how many books, movies or plays come out about it. Dragon Productions Theatre Company's current take on Maxwell Anderson's 1948 play "Anne of the Thousand Days" offers a stylized yet human examination of the fateful couple.
In case you aren't a history nerd like me and need a refresher, Henry's desire to get rid of his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn, who refused to be his mistress like her sister, Mary, led him to make a break from Catholicism and create the Anglican church, reshaping world history in accordance with his lust/love/desire for a legitimate son. This also set him on an increasingly tyrannical path that would see him marry four more wives before he finally wore out.
Anne Boleyn, maligned by her detractors and idolized by her fans, serves as a complicated heroine (or anti-heroine). Was she a witch, a calculating schemer, a whore? Or a feminist icon, victim and modern reformer? In Anderson's play, Anne is definitely a sympathetic protagonist. Played quite well at the Dragon by Ivette Deltoro, she's a fiercely intelligent, independent young woman who's dragged unwillingly into the royal circle, eventually embraces her powerful new station, then finds herself out of favor and about to lose her head (spoiler alert?) in one of history's most spectacular rises and downfalls.
Peter Ray Juarez, as Henry VIII, offers a surprising and ultimately very winning performance, his every facial expression reflecting the arrogant, yet charming, monarch's thoughts and feelings and his smooth voice reminiscent of a televangelist. His Bluff King Hal is still young and virile, the ideal Renaissance prince, and not yet fully the ill, paranoid despot he'd become. Juarez gets audience laughs as he displays Henry's astounding, clueless ego and sense of entitlement, a living example of male privilege and power in action, but he shows, too, his genuine desire to live up to his kingly duties, to get that elusive, all-important male heir and to be truly loved.
Though it's definitely Henry and Anne's story, there are a number of fascinating side characters and the Dragon's ensemble members (directed by Melinda Marks), including Lisa Burton, Helena G. Clarkson, April Culver, Tonya Duncan, Ronald Feichtmeir and Keenan Flagg, all tackle multiple roles, sometimes even switching characters within the same scene and featuring a number of gender-bending casting choices. It's fun to watch, seeing folks take on roles they would not have been offered in more traditional versions. Those unfamiliar with the history, however, may find themselves confused.
Interludes of period-style music, often led by Flagg on classical guitar and vocals with others joining in, is a nice touch (although he struggled opening night with the melody to "I Had a Little Nut Tree").
For a "costume drama," this production is not heavily costumed. Henry, as befitting the king, gets the most sumptuous of Marley Teter's attire, while most of the cast are outfitted in neutral clothes (think gray yoga pants and boots) with key period elements (a hat here, a cardinal's cloak there) representing their various characters. Deltoro's neck goes from holding Anne's trademark "B" necklace to a white ruff to one in blood red, representing her grim fate.
Anderson's script is witty and poetic and the structure of the show, framed by Anne's imprisonment in the Tower of London, her execution nigh, flashing back to key moments of her "thousand days" with Henry, is well done. Audiences will laugh (or cry) knowingly at dialogue that resonates, such as when Henry and his mates engage in some ye olde "locker room talk," and appreciate the irony of Henry's doubt that a woman could ever rule England. (He and Anne's only living child, Elizabeth, whose birth deeply disappoints them both, would of course go on to reign as one of the nation's most successful sovereigns, among several other notable English queens.)
Dragon's "Anne of the Thousand Days" is another good version of a great old story, an intimate tale with global implications.
What: "Anne of the Thousand Days."Where: Dragon Theatre, 2120 Broadway St., Redwood City.
When: Through Nov. 24. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m.