Review: Tudor twists and turns

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Joel F. Grothe, center, plays Thomas Cromwell, Ruherford Cravens, left, plays Cardinal Wolsey and Joel Sandel plays Thomas More in Main Street Theater’s productions of “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up The Bodies” through Dec. 18. Courtesy photo.

MST’s ‘Wolf Hall,’ ‘Bring Up The Bodies’ a theatrical feast

HOUSTON — Political machinations, a social climber using her feminine wiles, alliances, intrigue and scandal. No, it’s not a post-election wrap up, it’s the 1520s in the court of Henry VIII.

Main Street Theater’s production of “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up The Bodies,” adapted from Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novels by Mike Poulton, is a sumptuous feast fit for a king.

The play follows the rise of Thomas Cromwell (Joel F. Grothe) as he rises through the ranks of the court to be Henry’s most trusted fixer. Cromwell’s rise is built on loyalty and cunning scheming.

The play begins with Henry VIII (Blake Weir) frustrated by the inability of Katherine of Aragon (Kara Greenberg) to provide him with a male heir. Let’s be honest, most people have at least a cursory knowledge of the tale of the Tudors, but these plays, set in the round in Main Street’s intimate theater, make it feel as though we are in the room with these historical figures, seeing their strengths and weaknesses in the flesh, getting up close with the doubts, fears and ambitions that drive their motives.

A notorious womanizer eventually turns to Anne Boleyn who, with the help of her (very close) family, manipulates Henry into seeking a divorce. Anne, played with devious deliciousness by Lisa Villegas, dominates the men of the court, while inserting herself between Henry and Cardinal Wolsey (Rutherford Cravens).

The hub around which the plays revolve is Cromwell. In “Wolf Hall,” he is the loyal protégé of Wolsey, helping him grease the wheels of power for the king. When Wolsey is undone by Boleyn and her supporters, Cromwell shifts to become the invaluable hand of the king. “Bring Up The Bodies” follows Cromwell’s consolidation of power — and the perils that come with it — as he helps Henry with his quest for an heir.

Grothe’s Cromwell is on stage for almost every scene of the two plays. In “Wolf Hall” our sympathies are with the lower–class boy made good — “The Grim Blacksmith” — as he watches his mentor, Wolsey, buried by his enemies. Grothe plays the part with solid good grace as a loyal friend and family man. In “Bring Up The Bodies,” we see Cromwell for the skillful operator as he gradually eliminates his political enemies. It is in the second play that Grothe really shines. He becomes more animated as he puts his plans into action and his confidence in his abilities grows. It is an assured performance worthy of the material.

whMain Street is not afraid to test itself with epic material, and in most cases, such as this one, the audience is rewarded by their bravado. The play, directed by Rebecca Greene Udden, is set in the round, with only minimal set pieces. The dialogue is crisp and often humorous within the deep historical events.

Shakespeare’s Henry IV says “Heavy is the head that wears the crown,” and Weir’s Henry VIII excellently reveals this to be true. Far from the one-dimensional blustering womanizer of some portrayals, Weir gives us a king that is truly worried about the country in the event of a fight over succession. Is he a “good” man? Not particularly, but he is thoughtful and, to the extent his upbringing allows, loving — though monogomy doesn’t really play into that.

Villegas is superb as Anne Boleyn. She is fully aware of how to use her sexuality to her advantage, and her rise and fall covers the full range of emotions.

The large cast of 24, many of whom play multiple roles, are admirable, with kudos to Joel Sandel as Sir Thomas More, and Will Sanders as Cromwell’s protégé Rafe Sandler.

“Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up The Bodies” are a must see for any theater fan or history buff. Sharp, witty and intelligent, it is theater at its best.

The plays run through Dec. 18. There are two more “marathon days” where the two shows will play back to back. It is an experience worth doing.

For more information, visit www.mainstreettheater.com.

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So long, Leonard

leonardcohen

When I was around 10-years old, I remember visits to my cool, left-leaning uncle and loving his record collection. Aside from the usual hits by the Beatles, etc., the one artist that stuck in my mind — and, honestly, not necessarily in a good way — was Leonard Cohen. I couldn’t quite understand why my uncle wanted to listen to this miserable voice singing miserable songs. But there was obviously something memorable about him.

As I got older, my tastes shifted from ska and reggae to soul and punk, but I never forgot Leonard. And strangely, the songs began to make sense. By the time I was in art college, the love songs began to hit home. “So long, Marianne” and “Suzanne” all played into my artistic sensibilities. “Famous Blue Raincoat” had the gorgeous lines:

Yes, and Jane came by with a lock of your hair
She said that you gave it to her
That night that you planned to go clear
Did you ever go clear?

After all, aren’t we all trying to go clear?

It also helped that liking Cohen was a bit pretentious, which suited me perfectly. “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” or “Bird on a Wire” were great additions to mix tapes, interspersed with The Pogues, The Clash, The Temptations and various obscure reggae tracks that showed how eclectic I was.

Then, in 1988, he released the album “I’m Your Man.” By this time his voice, roughened by alcohol and cigarettes, had a world-weary quality, which perfectly matched the realizations of my 28-year-old self (ah, if only one knew then how much more wearying life could get). But the lyrics had a wry humor. “First We Take Manhattan,” “Everybody Knows” and “Take This Waltz” (his translation of a Federico Garcia Lorca poem) became staples of my listening routine.

Tower of Song” was a slyly self-deprecating piece that still makes me laugh, especially the older I get:

Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on
I’m just paying my rent every day in the Tower of Song

These were songs not of despair, but observations of the human condition. Finally, after being exposed to his music for 20 years, I got it.

Here was a man simply trying to figure things out. Going back through his catalogue, one could hear all the questions that we ask ourselves. The beauty of his lyrics is that there are no answers, but I don’t really think that is Cohen’s mission.

His wordplay was superb. Part of the appeal of, arguably, his most popular song, “Hallelujah,” is its ambiguity. For some, it is a spiritual piece, for others, it is an exploration of sexuality. For example:

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew her
She tied you
To a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.

One could argue that sexuality and spirituality go hand-in-hand with each other, but that’s just my view.

leonard-cohen-leonard-cohen-37242370-1024-768Leonard certainly had a way with the ladies. Maybe it was the voice. Maybe it was the sensual wordplay — “Light As The Breeze” is one of the most erotic songs ever recorded. Whatever it was, it certainly worked for him. And through him, maybe us a little bit — it certainly didn’t hurt.

Cohen disappeared for years, retreating to a life as a monk in a California monastery until he was forced to return to the world after his manager embezzled his savings. The return gave us several more great albums, such as “Popular Problems,” whose track “Slow” gave us the lines:

I’m slowing down the tune
I never liked it fast
You want to get there soon
I want to get there last

His final release in October, “You Want It Darker,” meditated on age and death. The title track featured the lines:

They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim
You want it darker

We kill the flame

Once again, he was just allowing us to listen in while he asked a few questions.

There was always a song or lyric that suited the occasion. I even use his song, “Dance Me To The End Of Love” as a vital element of my short play “Trash.”

Cohen died Nov. 11, at age 82. He was witty, thoughtful, and a magnificent wordsmith — more than that, he was cool. Not cool in a superficial, celebrity way, but cool in the come-with-me-on-the-journey way — or not, it was always our choice.

I started the journey too young to understand. But he dragged me along, despite my protestations, until I came to love and understand my traveling companion. And he left the music for the rest of the journey so we can continue the conversation.

Thanks for the talk, Leonard.

Sincerely, A Coughlan.

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Leonard Cohen and his long-time muse Marianne Ihlen