Theater review: With Carsten and Standriff slugging it out in Good Company’s ‘Seasons,’ will the best ‘Man’ win?
Standriff vs. Carsten. The words should be in big, bold, block type on a poster, superimposed on an image of two men in Tudor-era garments posed as pummeling pugilists, both stripped to the waist and dripping with sweat, eyeing each other with a ferocity that only comes with the certainty that one will crush the other.
They both give knockout performances in the historical drama “A Man For All Seasons,” running at the 2nd Space Theatre through Oct. 16.
Related story: AS SIR THOMAS MORE IN ‘A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS,’ MARK STANDRIFF CHECKS OFF ANOTHER ROLE ON HIS BUCKET LIST
First, we’ll formally introduce these brooding thespians: Mark Standriff, a StageWorks Fresno favorite making his Good Company Players debut, plays Sir Thomas More, the future Catholic saint; and Chris Carsten, a prolific and notable name on the GCP stage, who plays Thomas Cromwell. Both are professionally experienced actors. Both portray men who are familiar names in the ever-popular story (and cottage industry of books and movies) about Henry VIII and his six wives. As adversaries, they crackle.
“A Man For All Seasons,” written in 1960 by Robert Bolt, is not for those with short attention spans. It isn’t brisk (clocking in at two hours and 45 minutes with intermission) and demands a certain intellectual give-and-take with the audience. Some of the prose can be a bit stuffy.
I was enthralled. On one level, it’s the highly personal story of a man being slowly sucked into a tense, life-and-death situation. On another, it’s a broader look at religious certainty, following one’s conscience, and standing up against despotism.
I love theater that pushes me around a bit, challenges my assumptions, makes me consider present-day headlines even as I slosh around in murky 16th century political intrigue. With lesser actors in the leading roles, the verbosity of the play could have made it deadly, but with Standriff and Carsten – ably assisted by a strong hand from director Denise Graziani and a sterling supporting cast – things felt important and meaningful.
It helps to have a background in the tumultuous religious history of England, which was torn apart in the 1520s when Henry – unable to conceive a male heir with Catherine of Aragon – decided to divorce her at any cost. That meant a break with the pope in Rome. Henry made himself head of the new Church of England.
Such a move went against the very fabric of Thomas More’s faith. A staunch Catholic, he also served as Chancellor of England, the right-hand man to the king. Hailed for his intellect and faith, More’s opinion mattered. Henry desperately wanted his approval for the dissolution of his marriage to Catherine.
All this played out in a court filled with intrigue and fear, personified in the play by Thomas Cromwell, who – as portrayed by Carsten – was a first-rate schemer and sniveler with designs on greater power. What better political strategy than to use the religious divisions rampant in the country to bring down a rival?
Even though it became clear over time that More’s position and perhaps even life was at stake if he didn’t give in to the pressure to bless the king’s divorce, More held fast to his beliefs. The outcome isn’t in doubt. But the staunch, respectful way that More marches to his fate – again, at least as depicted in the play – casts a sad, heroic tinge on the conclusion.
The look and feel of the play is encompassing. David Pierce’s period set captures the somber mood. Ginger Kay Lewis Reed’s costumes feel opulent and substantial, as befitting the most important men in the realm. Brandi Martin’s lighting design is particularly effective, inserting us into shadowy interiors and the nighttime streets and waterways of London.
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Like a royal bedroom, the supporting cast is richly appointed. Marc Gonzalez is strong in his portrayal of Common Man, a sort of one-person Greek chorus who narrates the show and provides various secondary characters. Charis (who goes by one name) offers intriguing and distinctive portrayals of two important characters: the Spanish ambassador and King Henry VIII. Renee Newlove, Erica Riggs and Kylee Leyva excel in minor roles. And Joseph Ham is a standout, giving his Richard Rich a queasy, obsequious and hangdog demeanor that crystallizes into something sharper and darker.
The main event, however, is the faceoff between the two Thomases. Carsten’s performance, as Cromwell, is the most surprising. Seeing him play drunk is a terrifying thing to behold. It’s not a slow, restrained burn for Carsten. When he’s angry, he pummels the audience. When he’s conniving, it’s distasteful to watch. In many ways it’s an explosive, even reckless, performance, like turning up a stereo until the sound distorts.
As the core and conscience of the play, More is a heavy lift. Standriff has described his turn as More as a role of a lifetime. I can see why. The character spends most of the time being restrained and logical. To sense what’s going on inside, an actor has to give us tight glimpses through the eyes, the face, the voice and the way he carries himself. There’s a fine line between playing a fully realized character and a cardboard saint. Standriff gives us the former throughout.
The play, too, gives us glimpses of depth and nuance. It has a lot to say about silence – about the idea that not speaking up is a power all its own. By not proclaiming his opposition to the king forsaking the church in Rome, More feels comfortable and protected. This is a country of laws. And he is safe if he keeps silent. Or so he believes.
How safe are we if we stay silent in our own lives?
In the end, I feel for More – for the choices he makes, for the things he loses, for the ideals he aspires to. He knows that by saying a mere few words, he can escape death and ensure prosperity for his family. I wonder how many of us would be willing to go that far for what we believe.