It’s set in 1556, in the jail cell where Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer awaits execution the following morn: As a leader of England’s Reformation, and the fellow who unburdened Henry VIII of Catherine of Aragon and secured him Anne Boleyn, Cranmer is to be burned alive for heresy.
Cranmer’s companions are Nick, a comically incompetent jailer, and the ghosts of the long-dead Catherine and Anne themselves. The central conflict is whether Cranmer should recant to possibly save himself. Catherine argues yes, while Anne urges him to stick to his theological guns.
But The Consorts, as staged by The Summer Company, is only partly a standard costume drama; it’s also surprisingly, and perhaps mostly, an antic and very theatrical comedy. From the go, the somber premise is sliced and diced as characters directly address the audience, mouth wildly anachronistic phrases (“put a sock in it”; “one sec”) and reference latter-day BBC staples. As comic tensions mount between Catherine and Anne, The Consorts combines farce, Monty Python, Oscar Wilde and a heaping helping of camp (cat fight included, no extra charge).
The explanations suggested for all this sport are that the whole play is either a dream Cranmer is having, or that he’s already dead. Either way, it’s a real challenge for director John E. Lane Jr. and his cast, and Act I is pretty bumpy. Yet in Act II, when Ruppert doubles down — it’s even more delirious, employing every po-mo trick in the book — The Consorts paradoxically finds its footing. Ruppert, a Pittsburgh-based educator, is a witty writer, and The Consorts brims with jokes. (“I must recapture my jailer,” quips Cranmer at one point.) Perhaps half of them land, but that’s plenty: Ruppert has designed such an amusing hall of mirrors that the play keeps hurtling along.
Thank the cast, too: Nathaniel Yost, wildly energetic as the daft Nick; Jill Jeffrey, a regally embittered Catherine; Colleen Garrison, a naïve but strong-willed Anne; and especially John Yost, as Cranmer, who with his eloquent eyebrows and booming voice successfully binds the play’s comedy to its tragedy.
I’m not sure if The Consorts almost works or barely works, but as Cranmer himself says, apropos of something else entirely, “All in all, I enjoyed it.”