Joel F. Grothe as Thomas Cromwell
Joel F. Grothe as Thomas Cromwell
Photo by Pin Lim / Forest Photography

Bodies Galore in Bring Up the Bodies at Main Street Theater

The setup:
Let's see, where were we when last we left this tortuous nest of Tudor tarantulas?

The execution:
In Bring Up the Bodies, influential Cardinal Wolsey (Rutherford Cravens), stripped of power, has died in disgrace or from too many “purgatives.” Former queen Catherine of Aragon (Kara Greenberg), long banished from her husband's royal bed, is sickly and dying, as is daughter Mary's claim of legitimacy. Once-robust Henry VIII (Blake Weir, arms akimbo and grown into Holbein's royal portrait), portly and full of gout after having consumed far too many sweetmeats, is obsessed with procuring a male heir and is now smitten with shy virginal courtier Jane Seymour (Leslie Lenart).

Haughty and to-the-manor born, current wife Anne Boleyn (Lisa Villegas), mother of Princess Elizabeth but no male heir, faces multiple charges of adultery and incest (horrors!) with her brother. Nothing will stop Henry's desire to de-legitimize his latest marriage. The schemes and plots morph into each other, overlap and multiply.

Ultimate survivor and political animal, wily Thomas Cromwell (Joel F. Grothe), Henry's chief secretary and adviser who's risen from blacksmith's son to unheralded heights at the court, threads his way forever onward in hopes of placating the king's tempestuous nature and keeping his own head intact while everyone else is losing theirs. But how do you counsel a king who will brook no counsel? Thus far his intelligence and political savvy have succeeded in keeping the ax man at arm's length, but how long can his luck, fortune and social acumen keep him safe? Fortunes at court ofttimes depend on a fake smile, a felicitous phrase, an ingratiating bow that's not low enough. Everyone at court's out to get star-high Cromwell, and he bloody well knows it.

Ahh, fair England...this scepter'd isle...this other Eden...this magisterial, soap-filled, skillful drama adapted from Hilary Mantel's best-selling (and hoped-for) Tudor trilogy: Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and the promised The Mirror and the Light, which will conclude this boisterous and barbarous tale of Thomas Cromwell and his times. In a Houston theater coup only dextrous Cromwell could have planned so devilishly, Main Street Theater has acquired the American rights to this Royal Shakespeare Company double adaptation of Mantel's international bestsellers. Perhaps we'll see the third installment next season? There's always hope, you know.

At its best, English history is annoyingly convoluted, intertwined, mixed up, twisted under legend and myth, and then regarded as national treasure. And the Tudor era is all that and more. What a delicious and debauched tangled web.

Part II of this English Renaissance saga, Bring Up the Bodies, continues apace after Part I's intriguing introduction. You'll get the gist even if you haven't enjoyed the first part, but why come in afresh? See Wolf Hall first, then enjoy Bodies' ensuing whirlwind. The pieces of this antique jigsaw fit together neatly the more you know the picture.

A marvelous cat's cradle of a plot, Bodies centers on the king's dissatisfaction with second wife Anne Boleyn. When amorous royal escapades don't provide an heir, she is suspect – it's never the king's fault, of course; he's infallible, as is his supreme will. The machinations of the court go into overdrive. Is she an adulteress? Was she indeed previously married to Lord Percy (Jonathan Teverbaugh) prior to her marriage to Henry? Will Percy renounce his sworn testimony that was browbeaten out of him? Will he recant his recantation? Is Anne a tease and an innocent victim of malicious gossip, or the voracious strumpet everyone suspects? Is she bewitched? She surprises everyone, Henry most of all, when she announces her pregnancy. Who's the reputed father of her child, everyone eagerly whispers, as they gnaw at one another like hungry rodents at this potent piece of cheese? The list of suspects is arms-length, a Who's Who of court gentlemen who have paraded in and out of her chambers for revels – and other entertainments. The innocent get chewed up with the guilty. Arrests follow arrests, prison awaits, then the inevitable trip to the executioner. No surprise, if you've a smattering of English history, Anne's head falls too.

Our favorites return with relish. We've been waiting for them. Crabby old Wolsey (Cravens, sanguinary as always) haunts Cromwell's waking moments with pithy asides and graveside advice. He's a marvel to listen to, even when Mike Poulton's adaptation veers into mere quotidian historical drama than the wordy marvels Tom Stoppard might have conjured out this engrossing tale. And priggy Thomas More, also dead (but very much alive under Joel Sandel's pious portrayal), reappears to Cromwell, threatening him with the same fate that has befallen all before. Even as a specter, More doesn't relinquish his halo.

As Cromwell, Joel F. Grothe booms sonorously, hisses contemptuously and cajoles in rich baritone cadence. Feared but not much respected by his betters, who never let him forget his humble birth, Cromwell stands rigid and forthright, even when wracked by doubts. He saves friend Wyatt (John Dunn) from the block, although he knows that Wyatt knows more about Anne than he's telling. But Cromwell is staunchly loyal to friendships forged in the past. With Old Testament prophet-like wrath, he stands up to King, Queen and lords of the realm. “I never forget myself,” he acidly replies to a not-so-subtle threat. His hubris may be his downfall, but at the end of Part II he's more prominent than ever, giving Henry exactly what he wants, an annulment from Anne and the sovereign right of new English law to marry Jane.

The panoply remains: loyal secretary Rafe (Will Sanders); able-bodied henchman Christophe (Laurent Pratt); obsequious Smeaton, lutist to the queen (Bryan Kaplun); Eustache, ambassador to the Holy Roman Emperor (Sean Patrick Judge); French ambassador (the wry Jerry Miller); Thomas Boleyn, father of Anne (David Harlan); untested Gregory, Cromwell's son (Nathan Wilson); the gruff Duke of Suffolk (John Gremillion); Lady Worchester, who has her own secret for Cromwell (Julie Fontenot); and a host of others, all 55 of them, spelled by 25 actors. They come at you fast and furious, and it takes a beat or so to reassemble the familiar faces who are now playing someone else. But the rush is the fun part.

The verdict:
The commingling of politics with dirty deeds knows no century, and Bring Up the Bodies, wonderfully paced by director Rebecca Greene Udden, sumptuously gowned by Margaret Crowley, atmospherically located by sound designer Shawn W. St. John, and acted to a farthing by colorful cast, teaches us, most entertainingly, that there is nothing new under the sun. Place these weasels in any era, and they would be of their time. To rise high, you sometimes have to wallow in the sty. What happens to your mucked-up soul is an entirely different matter.

Wolf Hall. Parts I and II (starts October 29) through December 18. The parts alternate by week and then daily during the run. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times . For information, call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheater.com. $10 to $45.

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