Friday, Jun 23, 2017

Henry VIII (2009)

Photo by David Cooper

Photo by David Cooper

And now, I will begin this review in the most honest way possible: the only thing holding this production of Henry VIII back from being great is the text. It’s been 25 years since the last production of this play at OSF and now I know why. The premiere performance on Friday was full of excellent acting, creative staging, pageantry, spectacle… everything you hope for in seeing a play other than… er, the play.

Let me back up just a bit. This last (credited) play by William Shakespeare clearly finds him in a contemplative frame of mind, happy to explore difficult political machiniations in depth and to ruminate upon the rise and fall of those who work with power. Certainly the characters express themselves eloquently, even beautifully at times; there’s no mistaking whose work you’re being offered. What his audience of the time must’ve found engrossing, however, is now largely a snore. Shakespeare himself has dealt with matters of jealousy and infidelity with more aplomb, and the History plays often deal with the rites of succession while still keeping our interest. In Henry VIII, you lose one of your chief protagonists (the Duke of Buckingham, played here wonderfully, if briefly, by Michael Elich) in the first 30 minutes, and your chief antagonist (Cardinal Wolsey, by the sublime Michael Heald) with what felt like an hour remaining. Afterwards came the near-downfall of what had been a minor character, brought about by another minor character, and so on. To those English majors and Bard lovers who won’t hear a cross word spoken about Shakespeare, I do apologize, but yikes.

Despite my caterwauling, however, I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy myself. Director John Sipes managed to offer a period production that still felt vibrant and alive. His chief trick was to upend the traditional, Holbein-esque portrayal of the King. After all, Henry surely didn’t come out of the womb with mutton chops, right? So instead of this:

I'm Henry the Eighth I am...

I'm Henry the Eighth I am...

You have this:

Photo by Jenny Graham.

"Hellooooo, ladies." Photo by Jenny Graham

You have to admit, it’s an attention-getter. It also makes perfect sense to depict the man who went through six wives as being a virile young man. True, nothing stops the older man from having similar urges, but this is theater and casting is part of story-telling. Newcomer Elijah Alexander is well-cast in the role, if not perfectly suited for the outdoor stage. You believe his range of emotions, from true love for his wife Katherine at the outset, to his unease with her (for religious or romantic reasons, you pick), and on through his conflicted resolution with Anne Bullen and his joy at the christening of Elizabeth. He’s a dynamic performer; combined with his hilarious work in Servant of Two Masters I sincerely hope that he’s looking to make OSF his new artistic home.

Speaking of Katherine, and of actors’ suitability to the outdoor stage, ho lee wow Vilma Silva. She received two different ovations throughout the night for her scenes, and while I’m not sure I like this applause in the middle of an act trend (I swear I don’t remember it in years past) she certainly deserved it. She’s the definitive humanizing element of the play and the one person you truly root for – which makes it all the more depressing that she doesn’t come out on top, but she holds on to her white plume to the last. As for her putative opposite number, Cardinal Wolsey, Anthony Heald does his usual fine work but there’s a reason you never hear about Wolsey in a list of Shakespeare’s great villains. The man turns out to be a genial, decent sort who happens to be somewhat corrupted by the power he comes to wield. With the exception of a two-line aside wherein he takes credit for the King’s generosity he’s never seen to do any dastardly deed, although several are reported. I’m not sure if it fell to Mr. Heald to manifest his villainy through business, in which case he’s partly to blame for my problems with the production, or if he went as far as he was allowed to go.

Also deserving of special commendations are the costume designer, Susan E. Mickey, and scenic designer Michael Ganio. Both managed to bring a full-throated, sumptuous production to bear on the Elizabethan Stage; you heard no talk of budget cuts or re-purposed costumes on Friday, even if those things were true. As I said, I’m prepared to call this a great production of Henry VIII, for all that this was fine work in the service of an average piece. Here’s to giving it a second chance… in 2034.