Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Courtyard Theater, Navy Pier
When: through June 16
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Seeing “Henry VIII” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. According to the press release, this is the first professional Chicago production in the 400 years since the play made its debut at the Globe in London — with the canon fire that caused the original theater to burn to the ground on June 29, 1613.
It’s easy to see why “Henry VIII” isn’t staged here more often. It’s just not very good. Generally believed to be a collaboration between Shakespeare and his younger colleague, John Fletcher, the work also resists classification and wasn’t dubbed a “history” until it was published in the First Folio. The title before that was “All Is True.”
Artistic Director Barbara Gaines has tried to solve the problems by cutting a lot of political material and pageantry, but the results are less than satisfactory. What’s left essentially are examples of the rise and fall of the great — the Duke of Buckingham (Andrew Long), Cardinal Wolsey (Scott Jaeck), Queen Katherine (Ora Jones), Anne Boleyn (Christina Pumariega) — separated by reactions from the nobles, with narration of key events that happen offstage provided by the Duke of Suffolk, portrayed by Mike Nussbaum as a genial fellow who sounds a little like he’s popped in from the 21st century.
Henry VIII himself isn’t the star of his own show and doesn’t come off very well. Played by Gregory Wooddell as a dashing youth in his sexual prime who’s easily swayed by his latest favorite as well as his own lusts, he’s more impulsive and capricious than calculated and cunning. At least until the end. His reaction to the Privy Council’s bad treatment of Thomas Crammer, elevated to Archbishop of Canterbury (Andrew Long), is I think supposed to show us he’s taken control, sort of like Prince Hal, but whether he’s a tyrant or a good ruler remains unclear.
Even the glorification of the newly born Princess Elizabeth, which would have been sacrosanct hagiography a mere decade after the death of Queen Elizabeth I, gets a twist from Gaines. While Henry’s disappointment that Anne Boleyn didn’t produce a male heir lasts about two minutes, the prefiguring of Anne’s fate —with the womanizing king taking up with her replacement, Jane Seymour — casts a shadow. In fact, the earlier scene of the secretly married, pregnant Anne’s coronation provides an unnerving clue: All alone, in flowing golden robes, she looks like a matronly statue rather than the beautiful and seductive young woman Henry first meets at a party at Cardinal Wolsey’s.
As is usually the case, Gaines’ sympathy for the women is apparent. While Cardinal Wolsey comes closest to being a tragic hero — a proud, powerful man undone by his own hubris (not to mention greed) — and Jaeck’s performance neatly balances smug self-satisfaction and corruption with later contrition, it is Queen Katherine’s plight that stands out. Thanks to Ora Jones, this devoted wife cast off by her husband of 20 years is so articulate and impassioned in defending herself and opposing those who abuse her that we want her to win out and are dismayed when she gives up the fight.
Strong supporting work comes from an ensemble of CST regulars and newcomers, among them Kevin Gudahl, David Darlow, Kate Buddeke and Lance Baker.
Besides fragmenting the focus so we’re not sure who “Henry VIII” really is about, the production suffers from some odd staging choices. A bizarre container that looks like an oversize dumpster functions as a kind of Hell Mouth, with various openings — some fiery — appearing to receive the newly deceased, good or bad, to the accompaniment of a loud clanging noise. In addition, the actors face upstage too often when delivering their lines, making some of them hard to decipher.
On the other hand, Mariann S. Verheyen’s sumptuous costumes — solid-color satin gowns for the women, grey cloaks and black leather-like pants and boots for the men, lots of red for the cardinals — are gorgeous, and James Noone’s scenic design also relies on lush fabrics enhanced by Anne Militello’s lighting. Harrison McEldowney created the choreography that helps bring the evening to life, and Lindsay Jones is responsible for the original music and sound design.
Imperfect as this “Henry VIII” may be, I say “Go see it.” Who knows when, or if, a better version will come along?