Although I’ve never actually seen a full episode of “Downton Abbey” – I know, I know! – I think I can imagine what’s so wonderful about it: an epic, sweeping tale of impossibly rich, impossibly beautiful people who fall in and out of love with each other. Oh, and it’s set in England in the early 1900’s.
I suppose, then, that’s what I was expecting from The Gamm Theatre’s “Anne Boleyn,” minus the 1900’s part.
But what I got was a surprisingly bawdy, sometimes crass, sex-filled “dramedy” of sorts. “Anne Boleyn” truly took me by surprise.
Written by British playwright Howard Brenton, whose other work, “Paul,” was staged by the Gamm in their 2010-11 season, “Anne Boleyn” is a loose biopic of the queen who lost her dignity, her throne and (most famously) her head.
We first meet Anne, played beautifully by Brown/Trinity MFA grad, Madeleine Lambert, wearing a blood-soaked dress and carrying a burlap bag. You could guess what’s in it, and you’d be right.
We then flash forward to the time of King James I of “King James Bible” fame. Tony Estrella, who co-directed the play alongside Rachel Walshe, played the sloppy, boorish and not-so-secretly homosexual James. It’s a bit odd to see the dashingly handsome Estrella play a role otherwise reminiscent of “Fat Bastard” from the Austin Powers films, but yet he does it well.
The play alternates between the time of King James and the era of Anne. It’s a sometimes clumsy set-up, and the loose idea that James sought the spirit of Anne for answers on topics of religion sometimes is more cumbersome than useful. Although I enjoyed the scenes with James, I found the top of act two (which includes a surprising and hilarious scene between Estrella and his lover, George, played by the equally handsome Joe Short) to be a bit of a non sequitor. Still, the play touched on topics of sex, religion, gender and power in the microcosm of the Tudor Court, and it was fun and enjoyable overall, if not just a tad bit lengthy.
What lacked in the script was made up by the talent of the cast, who all took to their roles with zeal.
Lambert made her Gamm debut in the title role, showing off her range as a girl who grows from coy to sly, passionate, devout and then finally, betrayed. Lambert reminded me an awful lot of Amanda Ruggiero, another Gamm favorite from previous seasons who is now working up in the Boston area. Lambert should be proud of her inaugural performance, and I’m sure we’ll see her again.
Of course, Lambert was surrounded by a stellar cast that included Gamm regulars Steve Kidd, Casey Seymour-Kim, Karen Carpenter, Jim O’Brien, Tom Gleadow, Richard Noble and Sam Babbitt. David Rabinow, David Tessier, Tom Oakes and newcomers Katie Travers and Rachel Dulude rounded out the fine cast. It was a treat to see so many heavy hitters in one play.
The costumes by David T. Howard were also lovely, though I wasn’t as much a fan of the deep green set, which absorbed too much light and was rather drab in comparison to the lively performances taking place on it.
Though some historical knowledge of the time period and of Boleyn would no doubt be helpful, it’s not necessary to understand and enjoy the show. Plus, the Gamm provides a concise set of historical notes in the program.
“Anne Boleyn” runs now through Feb. 24 at the Sandra Feinstein Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange Street, Pawtucket. Tickets can be purchased online at www.gammtheatre.org, or by calling 401-723-4266.
An award-winning journalist and theater critic - and a performer at heart. Kim's talents have taken her from the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in NY, to stages in Boston and Providence's own Trinity Repertory.