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HISTORICAL VOICES: Local premiere of ‘Mary Tudor’ shows a woman’s place in 16th century England

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In only its second run ever, Gary Cole will help produce “Mary Tudor,” directed by Nicole Farmer, in the Ruth and Becky Stein Theater over the next three weekends at Thalian Hall.

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Between 1485 and 1603, The Tudors of Penmynydd became monarchs of England and Wales, and produced one of the worst reigning kings in history, Henry VIII (1509-1547). He managed to forge a path of constant war and made radical changes to the constitution to expand his power. He separated the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church just to annul his marriage to Catharine of Aragon because they produced Princess Mary Tudor instead of a male heir. He went on to marry Anne Boleyn—after a torrid affair—in hopes of having a prince who could continue his legacy. When that didn’t happen, he executed Boleyn for adultery and married Jane Seymour, who died after giving birth to their son, Edward VI. Three wives later, including Anne of Cleves (another annulment) and Catherine Howard (whom he killed, too), Henry died while married to Catherine Parr. 

Pictured are Hannah Elizabeth Smith as Mary Tudor (front row) and Courtney Poland as Jane Seymour, Alissa Fetherolf as Anne Boleyn, Nick Battiste as Henry VIII, Debra Gillingham as Lady Margaret Pole, and Christy Grantham as Lady Anne Shelton (back row, l. to r.). Photo by Janet Adamson

TUDOR WORLD: Pictured are Hannah Elizabeth Smith as Mary Tudor (front row) and Courtney Poland as Jane Seymour, Alissa Fetherolf as Anne Boleyn, Nick Battiste as Henry VIII, Debra Gillingham as Lady Margaret Pole, and Christy Grantham as Lady Anne Shelton (back row, l. to r.). Photo by Janet Adamson

Under his leading hand, the king squandered an enormous fortune and ordered numerous executions, including hits on the Pole and Courtenay families, who threatened his throne. He even executed his daughter’s own governess, Lady Margaret. Despite his staunch determination to have a living son who could carry on the Tudor reign, his daughters ended up as governing queens—one of whom was the first Queen of England, Mary Tudor. Tudor’s legacy is wrought by the slaying of hundreds of Protestants, which imprinted upon her the posthumous moniker “Bloody Mary.”

In the late ‘90s, William Gregory brought the drama of the Tudors to life in the debut of his original play, “Mary Tudor.” Produced by Gary Cole of CoHo Productions, the Portland, Oregon, world premiere received rave reviews for beautiful language set against a harried group of characters. In only its second run ever, Cole—founder of Theater of the American South in Wilson, NC—will help produce the show in the Ruth and Becky Stein Theater over the next three weekends at Thalian Hall. Directing will be Nicole Farmer, whose debut on the Wilmington theatre scene scored a win at the 2013 Wilmington Theatre Awards for Best Director with “William and Judith.” As fate would have it, “Mary Tudor” will be Farmer’s swan song to Wilmington, as she is set to move to New Haven, CT, come March.

Last fall, Farmer had an exact cast in mind to fulfill these historic roles. “I knew I wanted to work with seasoned actors,” she says. So she asked Nick Battiste to play Henry VIII, Alissa Fetherolf to  be wife Anne Boleyn, and Courtney Poland to take on her first straight play in the role of Jane Seymour. Typically cast in musicals, where levity rules the roost, Poland has enjoyed digging deeper as Jane. “She is often the messenger/bearer of bad news, and I am having to focus on putting myself in a position I could hardly imagine [being in],” Poland tells.

Farmer asked Hannah Elizabeth Smith to perfect Mary Tudor, the first child of divorce in England who suffered greatly. Though the play is based on events from 500 years ago, its themes still manage a timely scope of interest; in 2016 50 percent of married couples worldwide end in divorce.

“[Mary] is caught between her parents and suffers divided loyalties and feelings of abandonment quite familiar to a modern audience,” Cole tells. Considering her father’s renouncement of the Catholic faith, which Mary was devoutly ensconced to, ideas of religious liberty arise from the script as well. “The freedom to worship without being stigmatized by one’s faith has been much debated in recent months,” Cole continues. “And, of course, the perils of the pursuit of power never seem to fade.”

Farmer has been fascinated by the research of the Tudor legacy during this journey. In fact, it’s something that has struck the entire cast.  “Working on accents, learning period movement, and researching into the bowels of history have been so specific to this production,” Fetherolf says. “It’s been a lot of work but has made the process fulfilling.”

Brandy Laney—known for her comedic roles in local troupe Changing Channels—will take on a nursemaid. An elementary school teacher in real life, Laney’s nurturing side is easily accessible. However, learning the class system of England has wowed. “It has involved movement and customs very different from our [current] society,” Laney tells, “and I am not accustomed to being so restricted in a role onstage.”

The voices of the women in the play are far-reaching. Even Mary’s governess, played by veteran Debra Gillingham, presents a calm reserve filled with strength. “[It’s] something she radiates and tries to instill in Mary, both physically, spiritually and intellectually,” Gillingham says. “Throughout it all, she has a calmness of authority, calmness of acceptance and calmness that her faith brings to her life.”

Gillingham has found the extremes of “Mary Tudor” quite enamoring. Women had to be strong because of the maelstrom of power struggles they faced, whether gender, political, environmental, or physical. Still, in its painful push and pull of reality, the language soothes. “It isn’t Shakespeare in that it isn’t written in rhyme or a specific rhythm such as iambic pentameter,” Gillingham says. “But it is definitely beautiful in its own way. That doesn’t mean it has been easy to learn—these words don’t just roll off the tongue at first.”

“Anne [Boleyn] has a lot of malicious things to say,” Fetherolf adds. “Allowing her cruelty to penetrate has been a new experience. The fluidity of such precise language must come naturally. If I am uncertain of what I am to say next, the entire scene falls apart. It is not enough to simply deliver lines on the page. It has been necessary to let each intention saturate my mind and body before opening my mouth.”

Practically everyone involved in the production agrees Gregory lyrically impresses in his verbiage. The director calls his writing “accessible,” poetic even. “At each rehearsal I hear lines afresh, lines which strike me to the core in their accuracy,” Farmer says.

Because women of the day had very little voice, it’s a big commitment to take on, even five centuries later. Smith finds immeasurable power in playing Mary Tudor, but has discovered a greater responsibility. “[These] characters were once feeling, breathing individuals, most of whom are women trapped in a societal prison of the era and had no power over themselves,” she tells. “It is a privilege to help return their voices to them. A personal goal is for the audience to leave the production feeling as if they understand why Princess Mary Tudor became the infamous ‘Bloody Mary,’ and feel some empathy for a person who is so widely misunderstood.”

To construct this world, Farmer has focused on lighting and costuming to evoke the period. Since the play takes place before the invention of the light bulb, natural sunrises and sunsets, torches, candles and fires dictate tone. Aaron Willings is overseeing light design, to help transition locations, from the Palace at Hunsdon to the Court of the King to the Tower of London, all with the help of set design by Troy Rudeseal.

Costuming is handled by Jean Marie Griffen, who’s working with attire lent from the Playmakers Repertory in Chapel Hill. It’s provided the actresses real insight into the perils of uncomfortable gender expectation of the 16th century, not just in the confines of women’s rights but in how they were also bound by clothing. The actresses have been wearing their corsets since day one of rehearsals. “The costumes weigh 15 pounds [or more],” Farmer tells, “and so the actors will move completely differently than they do in modern clothing.”

“I love costume drama,” says Maria Chonko, who will play a midwife. “I enjoyed researching the material given in the text, as well as the historical material afforded us via scholars of the period. But, for the life of me, I don’t know why any woman would want to marry and bed King Henry VIII—nasty bit that he was.”

“I think the common perception of Henry VIII is that he was a violent, maniacal tyrant—and he was, no question!” Battiste confirms. “The language and dialogue in the play gives a glimpse into what motivated him to end up how he ended up. Maybe it’s because I’m playing him and this is my job as an actor, but I have discovered a sympathy and tragedy about Henry that I didn’t know was possible.”

Mary Tudor
Feb. 12-14, 18-21, 27-29, 7:30 p.m.; Sat. (except 2/13), 2 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m (additional showing, 7:30 p.m., 2/28) only
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.
Tickets: $22-$25 •

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