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March 16, 1999

Theater Review

"Royal Gambit":
A Review of USA Theater's Play

by Ernie and Pat Pinson

Basically there are four types of theaters: the fully professional companies like on/off Broadway; the repertoire companies like the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery; the community theaters like The Mobile Theater, and the collegiate theaters like The University of South Alabama. Each has its function, and each serves the community in a distinctive way. For example, the so-called "community" theaters like the Joe Jefferson Players almost per force provide plays that have proven appealing to public taste and cost less to produce than world premieres on Broadway. Community theaters typically include a steady diet of musicals, mysteries, and light comedies; seldom do they venture into heavy stuff, oppressive tragedies, or experimental avant garde drama.

Collegiate theater, however, can afford to venture to the fringes, take more risks, and indeed, owe it to their students to perform a variety of techniques, levels, and genre. Thus, USA Theater can present such shows like "MacBeth" and "Antigone," while the community theaters offer the milder plays of "Oliver" and "Academia Nuts." Like it or nay, the community theater owes its existence to the community norm, while the collegiate theater owes its existence to academic training.

With that in mind, Jean Galloway as director of the USA play can afford to test the field of less popular historical plays like "Royal Gambit," and even if they don't score with packed houses, they do provide an arena for discussion and edification. Indeed, collegiate theaters often have pre- or post-play lecture/discussions. The historical-based "Royal Gambit" might have been fertile grounds for discussion itself, since it darn near demands a knowledge of British history during the time of the infamous Henry 8th and his six wives plus.

The play is structured rather obviously on the marriage and rejection parade of wives one through six. And although each wife has her own personality trait to spice the play, the focus is clearly on Henry's growth and (can one say) maturation as he berates, charms, and commands his females, all the while proclaiming his godliness. Again and again Henry insists upon his godhead: "It is my divine right to test your fertility," he advises Jane Seymore. Again and again his wives try to identify his being: "Who are you -- Lucifer, Faustus, Satan, Nero, a man who destroys every woman he has?" Henry's answer: "God ordered me to help mankind."

Neither the play nor the acting can be called sterling. The play depends upon debate and philosophy to carry the day, since little action occurs -- true, some of the wives die, a baby dies, and there's a moment or two of romance, but dramatic tension is lax and character portrayal is forced to dominate. Matthew Orrell as Henry gives a good effort toward that portrayal. His demeanor changed rapidly, his facial expressions were superb, and he was natural and at ease in his hose and kilt (that's a feat in itself for any male). But he lacked the voice inflections and sweeping animations to reveal all the satire and emotion required. Ditto the six wives. All were of equal statue; no one stole the show, but this play will be limpid in the water unless the acting rescues the ship. Jodie Cain as Kate Parr tried to bring sparkle to the stage, but the lines were not strong enough to sustain her energy. In our view this play requires seasoned, experienced actors to capture all its satire, irony, nuances, and philosophical implications that otherwise go overlooked.

Despite its claim "to present some aspects of our modern age," the script itself offers suggestions, hints, but no clear philosophy. Its most profound "message" is (these are Henry's words) "God created Heaven and Earth, but I created consciousness." Okay, so Henry as a modern man prototype develops a consciousness. But how? From whence? Presumably through experiencing six wives and his awakened reasoning powers via his rejection of the shackles of the Pope. All we really know is that man's creations -- "calculating machines," "ultimate weapons," and "electronic brains" -- stand in conflict with "the consciousness of mankind you {Henry} created." But as Kate puts it near the end of the play: "The famous innovator has grown old; now he needs a nurse."

When all the wives return to the stage (just how that is possible is not clear), each one receives from Henry's will a part of his legacy: wife one - his consciousness; wife two -- his gold; wife three -- his love; wife four -- his freedom; wife five -- his new wisdom; wife six -- his spirit. Presumably that is what each gave to him -- but does it take six wives? Then why stop at six? And notice, none gave him a male heir. Hence, does failure and angst lead to wisdom?

In a rather pitiful end to it all, Henry now dying of heart failure shouts, "I don't have time to die; I'm indispensable," and he dictates all his platitudes and prophesies to a couldn't-care-less sixth wife who doesn't even pretend to take notes as commanded. "Oh yes, don't forget God. Search for Him." "And when you find Him, then what?" Sure Henry, then what? Is that modern man's dilemma? Consciousness leads to a dead end? The play won't say.

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