On my way to Navy Pier to see “Henry VIII” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, I tried to remember previous productions and came up blank — for good reason. In the 400 years since William Shakespeare’s history play debuted at the Globe Theatre in London in 1613, it has not been produced professionally in Chicago — until now. CST artistic director Barbara Gaines makes up for lost time with a richly minimalist production — that sounds paradoxical, but it’s an apt description — that focuses our attention on the interactions of the flawed but fascinating monarch known for serial weddings and beheadings.
That’s right, that Henry VIII. Even if you haven’t seen a production elsewhere or read the play, you know the characters from high school history class or from Showtime’s "The Tudors." First, there is the king himself, played by the handsome Gregory Wooddell, a fresh face at CST, with a winning mix of passion and perplexity. The real Henry VIII was a talented and creative thinker with limitless energy — and with the counterweight of a fickle and confused nature. Give an unstable narcissist unlimited power, and you’re just asking for trouble, as the other characters discover all too quickly.
Topping that list is Queen Katherine, the widow of Henry’s brother Arthur, who died at age 15 (thank goodness for the handy timeline in the program); Henry married Katherine a year after he took the throne at age 18. Ora Jones, a veteran of the Chicago stage, portrays Katherine as the strong, dignified royal she was, eliciting the audience’s empathy when Henry spurns the woman whose eight pregnancies have resulted in only one living child, and a girl at that, Princess Mary. Henry dumps Katherine for the bewitching Anne Boleyn, played with sensual appeal by Christina Pumariega in her CST debut. Anne will go on to marry Henry and give birth to Elizabeth, who will be sent to the Tower during Mary’s reign but will assume the throne after her half-sister dies in 1558. Keep in mind that Elizabeth will become Shakespeare’s #1 patron, and that his play about her dysfunctional family was not performed until 10 years after her death.
Henry’s marriage to Anne took place secretly while Katherine was still alive and Henry fought for a divorce, a move that not only gave birth to generations of family law attorneys but also pulled England away from Catholicism, as embodied in the character of Lord Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, at the start of the play the richest man in the kingdom and the power behind the throne who manipulates all in his secret quest to become Pope. Scott Jaeck is masterful and nuanced as Wolsey, turning the character on a dime from despicable to pitiable as his fortune, like that of the others, is eventually reversed by the whims of the King.
These characters and others, beginning with an able Andrew Long as the Duke of Buckingham, meet their ends in a Dumpster-like death box (scenic design by James Noone) that advances from the rear of the stage to swallow them up, a device that works as efficiently as beheading but without the gore. That box is one of few props on this minimalist stage. The production achieves the requisite pomp and splendor with a series of artfully lit (lighting design by Anne Militello) silk banners unfurled at key moments and a majestic shower of gold to mark the coronation of Queen Anne. Costumes by Mariann S. Verheyen are in keeping with this aesthetic, at once pared back but luxurious.
Every part is well cast, with stage veteran Mike Nussbaum standing out as a narrating Duke of Suffolk. Kevin Gudahl, as Surveyor to the Duke of Buckingham and later as Sir Thomas More, and Kate Buddeke, as the Old Lady friend to Anne, give crisp performances.
Gaines’ crafty direction includes some well-chosen cuts to the text that bring the running time with intermission to an absorbing two-and-a-half hours. Effective pantomimes substitute for words in a few places, including a steamy pas de deux between Henry and Anne (choreography by Harrison McEldowney). Humming beneath and between the lines is original music by Lindsay Jones, setting the mood as if we could hear the warring thoughts vibrating through Henry’s ever-changing mind.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier
800 E. Grand Ave., Chicago
Tickets: $58–$78 ($20 tickets available for patrons under 35); (312) 595-5600 or www.chicagoshakes.com
Through June 16, 2013
Photos: Liz Lauren