THEATER / JAN HERMAN : Chronicling Crisis of Conscience : Vanguard Cast Rises to Challenge of Presenting Intellectual Drama About Thomas More


For an amateur company, Fullerton’s Vanguard Theatre Ensemble gives a sturdy account of Robert Bolt’s chronicle play, “A Man for All Seasons,” about one of the most remarkable figures in all of English history: Sir Thomas More.

First produced in London in 1960 and on Broadway in 1961, the play makes sophisticated professional demands. It not only requires a large cast (there are 14 roles) in Tudor-style costumes, but also the intelligence to keep a cool focus on what is essentially an intellectual drama: More’s fatal act of conscience.

This is not to say the play lacks theatricality. On the contrary, it prizes clever staging both to draw us into the 16th-Century scenario and to transcend mere evocation of the era. But unlike “The Lion in Winter,” James Goldman’s soapy take on another ancient battle royal, “A Man for All Seasons” refuses its characters the luxury of chewing the castle scenery to define their many conflicts.


More stands at the heart of the play, increasingly alone in his unwillingness to bend to the needs of his imperious sovereign, Henry VIII. Henry wants to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. The divorce goes against More’s religious scruples--he is, among other things, an eminent Catholic scholar renowned for his piety--and he declines to use his influence in Rome to help Henry get a dispensation from the Pope.

Worse, after Henry establishes the breakaway Church of England and marries Anne, More resigns as the king’s chancellor, the highest secular post in the government. At the same time, even under threat of arrest, he continues to follow the dictate of his conscience by refusing to give his much-sought personal approval to the marriage.

Early in the play, More sounds a word of warning that goes to the essence of leadership and seems not unlike Elie Wiesel’s recent attempt to stiffen Bill Clinton’s spine on Bosnia: “I believe, when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos.”

More, who towered above his contemporaries in honesty, humility and nobility of character, does not want to make a martyr of himself. In addition to his other virtues, he is endowed with a brilliant legal mind. He hopes to protect himself under the law by keeping silent when asked to take the oath of allegiance that grants Henry precedence over the Pope in religious matters.

At his trial on a trumped-up charge of high treason, he argues: “The maxim of the law is, ‘Silence gives consent.’ If, therefore, you wish to construe what my silence betokened, you must construe that I consented, not that I denied.” But all his brilliance is of no avail against perjured testimony and a cowed jury.

More’s adamant refusal to sign the oath is not to be taken as arrogance. He simply prefers risking his life to risking his soul, a concept hard to appreciate in the 20th Century.


Indeed, to give a sense of More’s central belief--that the Pope is his “only link with Christ,” tenuous though it may be, and that to disown the Vicar of God would be worse than death itself--Bolt uses completely modern terms.

Thus, More asserts the primacy of the Pope as though it were the root of his own existence. His religious conviction is treated as a form of self-expression, an issue of individual choice.

“The Apostolic Succession of the Pope is . . . Why, it’s a theory, yes,” More tells his old friend the Duke of Norfolk. “You can’t see it, can’t touch it. It’s a theory. But what matters most to me is not whether it’s true . . . but that I believe it to be true, or rather, not that I believe it, but that I believe it.”

If Bolt’s writing calls for articulate restraint rather than histrionics in the performances--especially for More’s portrayal--it nonetheless provides a pungent stew of ruthless, venal and malevolent schemers drawn from a very colorful period: Cardinal Wolsey, Richard Rich and Thomas Cromwell are all present and accounted for, not to mention Henry.

But the most interesting character, also at the other end of the ethical spectrum from More, is a pure invention: the Common Man. Part chorus and part stagehand, he functions both as a theatrical device and as an insouciant link with the audience.

Commenting slyly on the motives and morals of others in the drama, the Common Man seems to be everywhere at once. He doubles in various minor roles from boatman to executioner, but chiefly as More’s longtime steward, Matthew, a duplicitous servant not above selling petty information to his master’s political enemies.

Davis Mejia, who plays these roles with uncommon fluidity, lends the production a buoyant charm and neatly balances the low-key austerity of Stuart Eriksen’s performance as More. Physically, too, they make a well-cast pair of opposites. Eriksen is tall and lean; Mejia is short and round.


Jason Grubbe gives a forceful reading of Cromwell, underscoring his hunger for power. Although Grubbe is sometimes hard to understand because he speaks too fast, he never seems less than authoritatively malefic. And Matt Stravinsky’s ferret-like portrait of the mendacious Richard Rich grows on you with each new lie.

Stan Bromberg’s Norfolk and David Rousseve’s Ambassador Chapuys are both credible. Rousseve is particularly well-spoken. He is also one of the few men in the cast who wears his costume well. In other words, he doesn’t look bandy-legged in tights.

James Cude cuts a purposely ludicrous figure as William Roper, the fool who always stands on his rectitude. And Christian Leffler bounds in with fitting grace as an athletic Henry, resplendent in a very regal get-up.

The nice thing about seeing “A Man for All Seasons” in the theater is being treated to the original script rather than the streamlined version that Bolt rewrote for the 1966 movie.

The movie happened to be excellent and featured an all-star cast, including Paul Scofield, who originated the role of More. But Bolt dropped the Common Man from the movie, entirely altering the tone of the piece. And he eliminated several minor roles--the Spanish ambassador among them--because they’re not essential to the main story.

On the other hand, Vanguard artistic director Terry Gunkel’s in-the-round staging virtually guarantees that no matter where you’re seated you won’t see everything (or hear it) because the players have their backs turned to you (or they’re blocking your line of sight).


Why Gunkel continues to insist on this awkward configuration for all Vanguard productions, when his work shows real stagecraft otherwise, is a mystery.

* “A Man for All Seasons,” Vanguard Theatre Ensemble, 699 S. State College Blvd., Fullerton. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 5 p.m. Ends June 5 . $10-$14. (714) 526-8007. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Davis Mejia: Common Man Stuart Eriksen: Thomas More Matt Stravinsky: Richard Rich Stan Bromberg: Duke of Norfolk Joyce Eriksen: Alice More Christie D’Zurilla: Margaret More Paul Teschke: Cardinal Wolsey Jason Grubbe: Cromwell David Rousseve: Ambassador Chapuys Peter Balaskas: Chapuy’s Attendant James Cude: William Roper Christian Leffler: Henry VIII Penny Bayard: Catherine Anger Paul Meitzler: Thomas Cranmer

A Vanguard Theatre Ensemble production. Written by Robert Bolt. Directed by Terry Gunkel. Produced by Monica Romig. Associate producer: Paul Meitzler. Costume design by Elizabeth Swenson. Lighting technicians: Stephen R. Ohab Jr. and Cathy Brown. Stage manager: Hugh Haiker.