Although it basically covers a lot of the same historical territory, Howard Brenton’s slyly spirited 2010 play “Anne Boleyn” is a far cry from your grandfather’s comparatively stuffy 1948 Maxwell Anderson chestnut “Anne of the Thousand Days.”
Both pieces focus on the tumultuous 16th-century courtship and marriage between Boleyn and King Henry VIII, which culminated with her beheading in 1536. But, cleverly, that gruesome end is essentially just the beginning of Brenton’s version of events.
In his opening scene, an animated Anne addresses the audience directly, speaking from beyond the grave, teasing us about the contents of a carrying case and finally revealing from it her own severed head. As an inventive framing device of sorts, Brenton incorporates into the story the character of King James I, who, nearly 100 years after the fact, is fascinated by the notion that Anne’s ghost may be haunting the corridors of Windsor Castle.
Very much back in his classical element (following a somewhat disappointing rendition of Theatrical Outfit’s contemporary musical “The Light in the Piazza” earlier this year), former Georgia Shakespeare artistic director Richard Garner proves to be a perfect choice to stage Synchronicity Theatre’s “Anne Boleyn.”
The sumptuous production values alone — featuring the stately scenic design of Barrett Doyle, elegant lighting by D. Connor McVey, and Abby Parker’s absolutely fabulous costumes — are top-notch.
Even so, it’s the vivid performances Garner elicits from lead actors Brooke Owens and Brian Hatch that truly elevate the proceedings. The radiant Owens, who recently completed an apprenticeship with Aurora Theatre (where she had small parts in “Wit” and “I’m Not Rappaport”), strikes a superb balance between capturing the youthful romanticism of the title character and portraying the devout idealism that ultimately spells her doom.
Equally sensational is Hatch (especially given his lackluster turns in Georgia Ensemble’s “Deathtrap” and Actor’s Express’ “The Rocky Horror Show”), insofar as he’s playing both the manly King Henry and the fey King James, and that he contrasts the two roles with such ample aplomb.
The show drags a bit on those rare occasions when neither of the co-stars is on stage, notwithstanding a uniformly fine supporting ensemble. Veteran Allan Edwards (as Thomas Cromwell) and newcomer Brittany L. Smith (as Lady Rochford) stand out.
More frequently, despite the otherwise fluid pace Garner maintains, the play periodically bogs down with so many heady discussions about political, theological and monarchical intrigues that can be hard to keep up with or follow at all. Another problem involves the sightlines of the Synchronicity space itself: Scenes played too far downstage or too low to the floor are lost on anyone in the audience who doesn’t happen to be seated in the front row.
In the case of “Anne Boleyn,” with typical style and sophistication to spare, plus a refreshing sense of humor uncommon to most historical pageantry, you want to savor every moment of it.
Through Oct. 16. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 5 p.m. Sundays. $23-$37. Synchronicity Theatre, 1545 Peachtree St. (at the Peachtree Pointe complex), Atlanta. 404-484-8636, www.synchrotheatre.com.
Bottom line: Alternately stately and spirited.