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VALLEY WEEKEND | THEATER REVIEW

Re-Imagining History Makes Effective Drama

Critics of Oliver Stone should take in 'A Man for All Seasons,' which does justice to Sir Thomas More's strong character.

February 22, 1996|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Oliver Stone's critics, meet Theatre Banshee. As if on cue, just as the storm swirling around Stone's "Nixon" has finally ebbed, the talented Banshee company comes along with Robert Bolt's own piece of historical revisionism, about Sir Thomas More, "A Man for All Seasons," at the Gene Bua Theatre.

Because Stone hews closely to recent history in "Nixon," "Born on the Fourth of July," "JFK," "Salvador," "Platoon" and "Midnight Express," the critical knives are out for him, attacking his habit for fictionalizing history. Stone is also alone, for there is no one like him among American playwrights, who shy from national historical characters and events like a bad flu.

English drama, on the other hand, was practically built on re-imagining history, and Bolt's play is one of the greatest postwar examples. When he wrote his romantic account of More facing up to the corrupt power of King Henry VIII in the 1530s, he had just come off another great historical romance--"Lawrence of Arabia." You can hear the ring of "Lawrence's" clipped dialogue all through this play, and sense the same revisionism for which Stone is condemned and Bolt praised.

Watching director Sean Branney's smooth, superb handling of "Seasons" exposes how stupid the knocks on Stone really are. Based largely on invention, and partly on biographies and court documents, Bolt's play makes the case that More (William Dennis Hunt) was a man of conscience, while Henry (Dan Harper) and his cynical minions, Thomas Cromwell (Morgan Rusler), the Duke of Norfolk (Matt Foyer) and Richard Rich (Pascal Marcotte), were small-minded opportunists. Sympathies are drawn, and problematic details of history are--rightly--swept aside.

The real More was a keen political animal of compromise, Henry's right-hand man, a renowned humanist and devoted to the papal authority. For the sake of the drama, Bolt downplays More's realpolitik and stresses his belief in the law above all.

*

There's nothing wrong with this, any more than there is with Stone highlighting some of Nixon's inner demons. Art is made by selection, and Bolt's choices make for vivid, juicy storytelling.

Hunt is one of L.A. theater's best actors, and his More is a portrait of inner conscience pressing a thinking man toward physical extremes: He visibly ages before our eyes. Marcotte gradually reveals the evil behind Rich's weakness, while Rusler plays Cromwell as written--the bad, bad guy with a voice like a broadsword.

Foyer's Norfolk and Harper's Henry deliver ever-surprising, vigorous portrayals. Pamela Mant as More's wife suggests long-suffering patience and independent will, and Michelle East as daughter Margaret breathes intellectual fire. As Margaret's Lutheran-leaning husband and the butt of many of More's jokes, Dan Wingard humanizes an easily clownish character. The look of Laura Brody's fine costumes seems to come directly from Hans Holbein's drawing of the More family, but the look of Shaun M. Meredith's ugly set seems to come from someone's ratty backyard. It's the only misstep in a swift, attentive production that shames those who claim history belongs only to historians.

DETAILS

* WHAT: "A Man for All Seasons."

* WHERE: Gene Bua Theatre, 3435 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 17.

* HOW MUCH: $10-$12.

* CALL: (818) 380-7135.

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