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Wolf Hall Roils With Power Plays and a King's Passions

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I'm a sucker for period plays, those set in olden tymes. Modern, angst-filled dramas replete with deep-dish secrets oft times leave me chilled, but clothe that dysfunctional family in damask farthingale, gabled headdress, slashed sleeve, furred collar, and felt shoe, and I'm in hog heaven.

Main Street Theater's thoroughly intriguing, often stunning realization of Mike Poulton's adaptation of Hilary Mantel's international bestseller, Wolf Hall, chronicles Tudor court intrigue under Henry VIII with the zeal and juice of tabloid journalism and the popcorn-munching familiarity of the grittiest of reality TV. (The second installment, Bring Up the Bodies, opens October 29.) Compelling in its storytelling and immensely watchable, the large cast of characters zooms through English Renaissance history like skiffs plying the river Thames. There are more than 50 separate roles, spelled by 25 actors, but the tapestry-rich story never loses the details in its portrayals, nor do we lose the intricately woven plot lines.

There's a whiff of BBC historical dramatics in the air, but we're definitely on their home turf – something akin to “this is our history and it's bloody good enough for you.” But it's well trod territory for sure, a veritable gold mine for Anglophiles, see A Man for all Seasons, The Private Life of Henry VIII, The Tudors, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and Anne of a Thousand Days. Even Shakespeare entered the fray, the first to do so, with his Henry VIII in collaboration with John Fletcher. This was the play that burned down the Globe in 1613 when a special effect gone awry landed on the thatched roof and razed the fabled “wooden O” in less than twenty minutes.

There's no end to our fascination with this atmospheric era that's stuffed like a codpiece with political maneuvering, philandering, blood lust, illicit trysts, entrenched family ties, and the will to survive no matter what. A time when if love loses its luster, you may lose your head. Men in tights behaving badly. What's not to mesmerize?

Unlike Robert Bolt's deification of Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, Mantel via Poulton turns our sight to his nemesis Thomas Cromwell (a marvelously solid Joel F. Grothe). Wolf Hall is his story, his rise and fall, although the first part is all about his vertiginous rise from blacksmith's son to king's confidant. The ground keeps shifting, allegiances waft back and forth, he's mocked by his betters, but Cromwell is mighty shifty himself. He seems to be the smartest person in the castle, as Grothe casts his cobra eyes over everything all at once. He misses nothing. Opportunistic with the best of them, he shrewdly bides his time or strikes when most advantageous, climbing the social ladder from lowly clerk to court dignitary with adroit fleetness, always keeping one step ahead of everybody else. Grothe imbues Cromwell with steely intelligence, glib tongue, and an unstoppable obsession to become a one-percenter. In Part I, his conscience is clear.

And what a court, presided over by tempestuous, temperamental Henry (a robust, charismatic, ginger-bearded Blake Weir) in the throes of brow beating his advisers to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon (Kara Greenberg, turning haughty into aggrieved as if spinning straw into gold), who's the niece of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. She's to be thrown over because she has not given him a son and rightful heir. Henry's untenable obstinacy causes a worldwide rift within the Catholic church and, most grievously, within the court and his Lord Chancellor, Thomas More (a devoutly forthright Joel Sandel) and wily old Cardinal Wolsey (a blustery, fine-tuned Rutherford Cravens). Cromwell judiciously threads the needle, supporting his king, arm-twisting others, and upping his position.

Machinations follow machination in cinematic brevity. Some characters die between scene changes, some lose fortunes, but the flood of events constantly flows. Under the stiletto-sharp direction by Rebecca Greene Udden, the production dances its own gaillarde. The physical look is intimate and sketchy (a rough desk, some Tudor-upholstered chairs, an ink pot with quill pen), but seems to have been sketched by Holbein.

Much like Main Street's superlative rendition of Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia – another Main Street coup for getting the rights to that play before anyone else, just like Wolf Hall – this one lets us imagine where we are by understatement and impression. Who needs tapestries and stone walls when Eric Marsh's lighting gives us dank passageways and candle-lit halls? Our eyes feast on Margaret Crowley's period-perfect costumes, a veritable banquet of velvet, brocade, French hoods, and ropes of pearls. The clothes make the man – and the play.

Other standouts in the impressive cast include: Laurent Pratt's sly but comic Christophe, French servant to Cromwell; Lisa Villegas's wily Anne Boleyn; Bryan Kaplun's lute-strumming knave Mark Smeaton; Jerry Miller's richly oil-painted Thomas Cranmer; Jonathon Teverbaugh's fey and doomed Harry Percy; Rachel Ollagnon's ophidian Mary Boleyn; John Dunn's drunken Thomas Wyatt.

History isn't the only lesson you'll learn from this eye-opener. If nothing else, political warfare hasn't changed all that much since then. Come see the corrupt power plays that look all too sadly familiar. No need to bone up on rarefied English history, either, it's all there right before your eyes, just be careful to look over your shoulder.

The panoply of Renaissance England comes to vivid life with the aptly named Wolf Hall, where the estate's motto and the play's credo is embodied by “Man is Wolf to Man.” They're on the prowl and out for blood at Main Street. You will howl in pleasure at this bloody fine show.

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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