A sizable segment of the makers and shakers of Britain’s mid-16th century nobility has take over Theater Intime for two weekends, as Marvin Cheiten’s “Queen Jane” continues at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus until Sunday, August 25.
For those whose knowledge of the royal lineage has faded, let me just point out that Queen Jane, better known as Lady Jane Grey, was a great-granddaughter of Henry VII. She ascended the throne at the age of 16, but she was, however, only queen for 10 days (in 1553) before being beheaded.
The Earl of Northumberland arranges that Jane be named heir presumptive to the throne (and that his son Guilford marry her) to cut off Mary, Henry VIII’s eldest daughter, who was Catholic. Northumberland thinks he can control Jane by marrying her off to his son, but she has her own ideas. The scheme fails when pro-Mary forces — aided by the Earl of Arundel, a snake in the grass who advances his own interests by passing on secret information — prove too strong.
Though the program calls “Queen Jane” a new play, an earlier version, with the same title, was performed at Theater Intime in 1976. Dan Berkowitz, the current director, was also the director then, but this time when he reread the play he found the material so relevant to today’s world that the decision was made to perform it in modern dress.
Generally, the feel of the play is a combination of modern and period. The trappings of the language — the “thees” and “thous” and the blank verse, with occasional rhymed couplets for exits — are borrowed from Shakespeare’s Elizabethan era, and, similarly, the Fool (yes, there’s a fool) delivers a whole speech in couplets. But when, for example, Lady Jane is questioning the ethical state of some situation, she may still speak in blank verse, but her choice of words and the tone of her argument take on a very modern, pedagogical quality — a university professor setting up an ethical dilemma as a teaching moment for the class.
What Jane’s ideals were in real life we do not know. We do know, though, that she was highly educated, and Cheiten’s conceit is to make her a modern idealist, worrying about such issues as government-funded healthcare and the need for a minimum wage. The nobles assuming their right to trample over others are, of course, using a different language, and the audience is taken back to an earlier time.
“Queen Jane” has a fairly large cast by today’s standards. Indeed, the size of the cast (15 actors required) is yet another feature that evokes Shakespeare. Phoenix Catherine Gonzalez, as Lady Jane Grey, has by far the most to do, and her performance stays on a very high level indeed.
The same quality can be said of the cast that includes four members of Actors’ Equity (with substantial credits in TV, film, and on stage): Jason Szamreta, the Earl of Arundel; Jonathan Hartman, Sir John Gates; Sam Leicher, the Duke of Northampton; and Ken Schwarz, the Earl of Northumberland.
Other members of the company who play British nobility and upper class, include the Marquis of Winchester, played by Connor McElwee; King Edward VI, played by Patrick McCarty (who also takes on the roles of both a leper and Jane’s page); the Archbishop of Canterbury, played by Gordon Gray; the Duchess of Suffolk, played by Virginia Barrie; Sir John Cheke, played by Finn Kilgore; and Guilford Dudley, played by Aaron Gaines. Joseph Edwin Thomas is the Fool.
Not all members of the cast were completely at home with the Elizabethan-style dialogue, but then there were times when it sounded as if the playwright wasn’t either.
The thunderstorm in the first act probably does not have any deeper significance, but Bill Kirby, the backstage genius in charge of sound, managed to pull off such a good job that many members of the audience were looking anxiously toward the exits. Marie Miller was responsible for the costumes, which may have been less fun for the audience than Elizabethan ones would have been, but she did come up with some clever touches. The gray suit Arundel wore looked positively metallic, and the Duchess’ hat could have been lifted from Queen Elizabeth II. Christopher Gorzelnik handled the lighting design, and, as always, made the lighting enhance the action and the mood.
It is perhaps unduly negative to think of this play as fake Shakespeare, and those in the audience who didn’t think of it in those terms probably enjoyed it more.
Queen Jane, Hamilton Murray Theater, Princeton University. Through Sunday, August 25. $16 to $20. www.Smartix.com, by calling 877-238-5596, or at the theater box office one hour before each performance. Marvincheiten.com.