Somewhere in the second act of The Consorts, which is currently in production by The Summer Company at Duquesne University’s The Genesius Theater, I fell in love with the play. The exact moment was when Thomas Cranmer (played by John Yost) referenced Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon because both works revolve around alternative narratives. While Rashomon is based on multiple retellings by various characters of the same event, The Consorts spends its time drifting in and out of reality.
And though it may seem confusing that a character based on the 16th century leader of the English Reformation and Archbishop of Canterbury would reference a 20th century Japanese filmmaker, there is a line in Rashomon that very coincidentally also happens to be the theme of The Consorts: “Dead men tell no tales.” The dead man (or soon to be dead) in The Consorts is Thomas Cranmer and the play is the tale of his final night on Earth as he awaits execution for his heretical acts. The Consorts serves as the emotional catharsis of Cranmer, who very much knows that he will not be alive much longer and that his tale telling days are drastically numbered.
The Consorts breaks the fourth wall, references events that will not occur for many years, and has moments where it does not clearly distinguish if Thomas Cramer is awake or dreaming. There are a few other things that make The Consorts rather daunting as well. The play takes place in 16th century England and both the playwright, Tim Ruppert, and John Yost make mention of the play’s difficulty in the playbill.The genius of The Consorts is that none of this matters. The audience believes the play because everything that occurs is true to the heart of the main character. The engine of the play is our faith that we’ll eventually understand everything — at the very least we await whatever resolution Thomas Cranmer reaches about life before he is set on fire.
The Genesius Theater was introduced last year to Duquesne University. The theater is small seats up to 130 members and structured so that the seats wrap around three sides of the stage. It’s a very intimate venue for good performances, and maybe a little too close for comfort for not-so-good performances. On the night I attended, there were more than one or two empty seats in the house. I figured The Consorts would be hard to attract an audience because the lure of a play about 16th century England is not the type of stuff that tends to pull in a crowd. But the audience, the play’s setting, the playwright’s warning about the difficult of the work… there were so many things conspiring to work against The Consorts that I almost wanted to like the play just because I perceived it as an underdog.
The play opens with a solitary candle being lit to reveal a chamber with two men. A bit like the alarm clock in Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day, the candle will be a useful device, unmistakably setting apart the various fragments of Cranmer’s world of perception. The two men are Thomas Cranmer and an errand boy, Nicholas Woodson (Nathaniel Yost). Following a line of long established characters that can be traced to at the very least a stock figure in late Renaissance theater, Woodson acts as the bumbling counterpart to Cranmer’s seriousness and at least once falls over with his pants down. Woodson provides Cranmer with parchment, a bottle of ink, and a quill pen: the material to write Cranmer’s final recantation. In the course of trying to write this recantation, Cranmer is visited by the ghosts of Katherine of Aragon (Jill Jeffrey) and Anne Boelyn (Colleen Garrison). Both women want desperately to win the attention of Cranmer.
Ruppert’s play is only the ground on which the film walks, however. The real gift of The Consorts is in the strength of the actors’ performances. Nathaniel Yost is the real life son of John Yost. I have seen many plays over the years, but I have not once seen a play where parent and child perform with one another. While this relationship is not something that one would be alert to by simply watching, learning this fact from the playbill shortly before the play began made the piece infinitely more interesting. While John Yost’s ability to convincingly shift between several intense emotions during the play is the bread and butter of the performance, Nathaniel Yost’s humor and brevity as Woodson provide the perfect soundboard against which his father can succeed so much in his portrayal of Cranmer.
There is a moment in the play where Anne Boelyn emerges from the darkened corners of Cranmer’s mind eating the meager remains of Cranmer’s last meal. Boelyn’s mouth is full and while a Queen of England, Boelyn lacks the grace to avoid talking while eating. It’s a very silly moment, English royalty making conversation with the cheeks of a chipmunk. Ruppert in the playbill refers to the tone of The Consorts as “fantastical tragedy with a dusting of comedy” and that’s exactly what audiences can expect. Colleen Garrison and Jill Jeffrey did well with the handling of their performances by neither stealing the light from John Yost nor failing to provide the impression of the tortured women that Henry VIII’s executed wives must have held. Not even when she shows a ribbon where her ghost’s head was reattached does Colleen Garrison make you snicker. And that’s very much a compliment with someone tasked with performing the role of a beheaded 16th century Queen.
There are a few times in The Consorts where the play uses lighting and sound effects. The technical staging at The Genesius Theatre is just as small but cozy as the venue’s seating. There are a few rain based effects during the play. (And I admit, I might be partial to effects trying to recreate lightning and rain to the extent that I would probably be okay if every play included these things.) There’s also a moment in the play where strobe lighting is used. Much like recreating dead, beheaded queens, strobe lighting is one of those things that if you can get through it without snickering, it’s been done correctly.
The Consorts runs through Sunday June 12 at the Genesius Theatre at Dusqesne University. For tickets and more information click here.
Special thanks to The Summer Company for complimentary press tickets. Photos courtesy of Justin Sines.