The real story of "Anne of the Thousand Days" is not the saga of a 16th century king and a proud swan-necked queen, but a contemporary tale of an uncelebrated janitor from Wheaton named Mitchell Cowan.
He played the jester in a production by the Rockville Little Theatre that opened last week and will close this Saturday. He had no lines, and in fact, the play by Maxwell Anderson doesn't even call for a jester. But the director Jennifer Crier Johnston had a sudden idea. ("It came like a bolt from the blue," she said.)
And so, after three years of trying out for every Little Theatre production and never getting a part because he stutters badly, after three years of knowing entire plays by heart but being unable to declaim them in the limelight, after three years of hitchhiking in the dead of winter to help paint scenery in the quonset hut behind the theater, Mitchell Cowan, 28, stood beaming in a blue and yellow costume with the bells taped to keep from jingling, a scepter in his hand, and took a bow on Opening Night.
At a party an hour later, Nancy Nilsson, one of the past presidents and pistols of the Rockville Little Theatre, swigged from a flask of bourbon and declared: "The King was superb, Cromwell was great, Anne was delightful, but Mitch, man, Mitch was MAGNIFICENT! You understand what I mean? That's what Rockville Little Theatre is all about."
To see Mitch Cowan, and the rest of the amateur cast involved in "Anne of the Thousand Days," is to know without a doubt that people live a double life. There are a few ways to transcend the tedium and drabness of daily routines, a few ways to make an ordinary night momentous. Putting on a play is one.
"This is the escape from real life, the answer to the question what might have been," said Dan Orenge, a technical writer at a computer company who skillfully played the treacherous Thomas Cromwell.
Says Peg Sante, the production's set dresser, who takes care of six children in her real life: "It's my make-pretend world. I come in here and I'm no longer somebody's mother. I'm the set dresser. I get to decorate a room. If the audience loves it, they tell me. If they hate it, it's torn down in two weeks."
The making of "Anne of the Thousand Days" began with auditions in October and concluded with Opening Night when Johnston, who is the social secretary at the British Embassy, took a seat in the back row by a squeaky door that drove her crazy and, having rested her case, waited for the verdict.
The cast and crew had only moved into the theater five days earlier for the notoriously hectic stint of rehearsals, conferences and fits of panic known as Hell Week. Normally a cheerful sort, Madame Director, as the cast called her, grew aggravated when her actors, at a sudden loss for words, called out "Line!"
"Come on, people," she snapped last Wednesday night in a voice gone hoarse from "giving notes" for six weeks. "You're not going to have a prompter tomorrow night."
It was also her lot to attend to a googolplex of tiny details: Mary's lips are too dark, she said. Anne's hair has to be worn pulled back, not in bangs. Find some shoes for Cromwell, sneakers are not in our period. Norris, take your glasses off. Kill Mitch's bells. You men remember to wear jockey briefs under your Dublin hose, because boxer shorts show.
All week the production's many tributaries converged. Lights were hung and focused. Gorgeous crinoline hoopskirts, tunics and sumptuous coats were fitted. Tapes of consort music and carillon bells were hooked up to the sound system. The actors, after weeks of rehearsal, were as keyed up as any football team contending for a championship.
And at last, on Nov. 26, the hour was at hand. An usher dressed as a beefeater stood at the door and the lobby of the F. Scott Fitzgerald auditorium was decorated with portraits of Henry the 8th. The British ambassador, Madame Director's boss, and the Lady Ambassador arrived in a green-gray Rolls Royce. In keeping with the period, Patsy Smart, the president of RLT, wore a brocade dress unearthed from a musty closet and passed out pins to the volunteers who had worked on the play--crowns fashioned from gold paper and studded with ruby-colored pieces of Tic Tac gum.
Meanwhile, the proceedings backstage were being supervised by a 42-year-old railroad electrification consultant named Michael Lewis who, like the rest of the backstage crew, dressed in cat-burglar black in case a spotlight catches him on stage. Of the dozens of no-nos in the backstage code book, there is one out-and-out felony: flushing the toilet in the dressing room. Its Niagara roar can be heard from the last row in the house.
The house lights were dimmed to half by the lighting director Shelley King, who sat, like a pilot in the cockpit of a B-52, in a booth crammed with switches and gizmos. Then the house lights went black, and a white-blue beam burst from a spotlight, illuminating Queen Anne who was remembering her reign as she waited in the tower to die.
After the applause had died away, Jillian Gordon, who played the Queen, accepted a dozen red roses. Costumes were returned to the racks and the actors scrubbed off most of their make-up. There was a party for cast, crew, season ticket-holders and fans of RLT in a large room under the stage. The walls were trimmed with Union Jack bunting from the British embassy and Frank Sinatra was crooning "New York New York" on the record player. All had gone well -- well, at least there were no disasters.
Madame Director presented the cast, oddly familiar in street clothes. Looking androgynous in his eyeliner, Jon Riley, the King, planted a kiss on Madame Director's cheek, flush from a performance that had impressed many. And Mitch Cowan to whom the King had addressed many of his lines, danced around from table to table, beside himself with happiness at the prospect of three more nights on stage. What was it about the Little Theatre that meant so much?
"I meet people," he said. "And there is something inside me. It's hard to explain."