Seasons Bleatings

Safely ensconced in its comfortable new home in a strip mall at 99th Avenue and Peoria Avenue, Theater Works is presenting Robert Bolt's turgid, talky historical pageant A Man for All Seasons. In its new location, the theatre has painstakingly reproduced the exact layout of the bucolic barn it previously inhabited for many years of theatre production. Something may have been lost in ambiance, but the altered circumstances also bring significant improvements to this theatre space.

The stage is considerably larger than Theater Works' former quarters, affording what seems to be more width, breadth and height than before. More significant to local theatregoers, there is, at long last, air conditioning! Now if the lighting and sound equipment can be upgraded to minimal professional standards, Theater Works could become a theatrical adventure worth the trip to the far-western edge of the Valley.

As for the pulse of living theatre on this new stage, it is fairly faint in this outing.

A Man for All Seasons is a high-minded and loquacious treatise on the conscientious objection of Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor, to the usurpation of the Pope's spiritual authority by England's King Henry VIII. Henry asserted his right to divorce Queen Catherine because she could not give him a male heir. As almost any casual reader of history will know, he subsequently ran through a succession of wives in his quest for a male successor, all in vain. Instead, his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, was destined to become the strongest monarch in England's history after the demise of Henry.

Bolt (who also wrote the epic screenplay for Lawrence of Arabia) used the political maneuverings of the Machiavellian 16th century to deliver a Sunday-school lesson on the virtues of following one's conscience. It is the kind of vacuous message so safe that any audience can, at any time, smugly feel safe in endorsing the homily; thus justifying the boast of the title. Unfortunately, whatever relevance the play might have to our postmodern era of moral uncertainty is so general that there is little useful insight for Bill Clinton or Bob Dole. "To thine own self be true . . . and you'll probably lose your head" is the cynical message of this melodrama of faux nobility.

When I saw the original Broadway production in 1961, Paul Scofield gave a flat reading of Sir Thomas More that, nevertheless, won him a Tony award, and for the much improved film of 1966 (directed by Fred Zinnemann) an Oscar. The tedium of the much-praised Broadway production (in my idealistically unforgiving young eyes) was saved only by the incandescent performance of George Rose as the Common Man--also a Tony winner for Best Supporting Actor.

Thirty-five years later, the wooden staging of this play by Cathy Dresbach does little to animate the scant action Bolt has provided. The first act consists of tediously slow, wall-to-wall talk used to set up the parameters of the dramatic situation. Eventually, the second act does pay off with some momentum, but it is far too late to be satisfying, and the play is never emotionally gripping.

The unimaginative setting by Gregory Jaye is no better than servicable for the episodic, plodding mise en scene required by the text. Although the stage offers multiple areas in which to move the action from Hampton Court to the Tower of London, there is none of the fluidity or practicality of a good Shakespearean production. Instead, the bland set is simultaneously vague and banally specific. (For example, Cardinal Wolsey's apartment contains a desk from the Queen Anne period, 150 years after the events of the play.)

The best feature of the play is the character of the Common Man, whose venal vulgarity gives a contemporary audience a chum it can sniggle with. A chorus within a single actor, the Common Man is corruptible and vacillating, thus endowing the title with an ironic ambiguity as to which of the characters is actually the man for all seasons. But this relevance is so lost in the windy passages of arcane argument that it seems heavy-handed by the time the irony fully emerges.

And, unfortunately, this production is burdened with a performance of the Common Man, by Martin Foxwell, that never succeeds in engaging the audience, so most of the intended wit misfires.

There is some good work, both by the blustery Wes Martin as the Duke of Norfolk and by Lauren Ann Schieffer as More's long-suffering wife, Lady Alice. And Tony McGraw impersonates King Henry as an overgrown brat and justifies his persecution of More as the whim of a spoiled child.

The production is blessed, however, with a strong, persuasive presence in Kerry Ellis as Sir Thomas More. His quiet dignity lends weight to Bolt's rather spurious moralizing, rendering More with a depth and texture absent from the text. It is not his fault that Bolt is never able to make us care emotionally that More is going to lose his head, nor that the audience giggles when the executioner lugs an oversize ax.

Also stunningly right are the spectacular costumes by Margaret Emerson.
But, without a moral urgency, the play remains little more than a handsome display of pageantry. Despite a couple of fine speeches near the end about the inevitability of death, A Man for All Seasons lacks the vibrancy necessary to dispel the notion that we might catch a few winks during this droning history lecture.--Marshall W. Mason

A Man for All Seasons continues through Sunday, April 21 at Theater Works, 9850 West Peoria Avenue in Peoria.

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Marshall W. Mason