Shakespeare’s histories are tough sell for me. I tend to think of them as a lot of old men talking to each other. But I love Chicago Shakespeare Theater (and their $20 tickets for people under 35 program), so I was willing to give Henry VIII a shot. Plus, A Man for All Seasons reminded me how interesting the story of Henry VIII is, by not telling me that story and instead making me watch the season’s change.
Shakespeare’s version, at least interpreted by CST’s artistic director Barbara Gaines, places the focuses on the most important character in the story. Elizabeth. Just kidding she’s only a baby doll, but the text makes it very clear that all the morally dubious decisions are OK because they lead to the glory of Elizabeth. There is literally a shower of golden confetti marking her christening. (And a complete shafting of her half-sister Mary…)
The most surprising element of the script, given it’s completely pro-Elizabeth tone, was the amount of attention paid to Katherine (Henry’s first wife), played by the amazing Ora Jones. She is fierce in her refusal to give in to her philandering husband and the conniving Cardinals. The most emotional scene in the whole play is her dreamed dance with a vision of Henry right before she dies. Jones transformed from a weak dying woman to a giggling girl effortlessly.
Unfortunately her death scene is then undercut by the strangest directorial decision. As each of the three characters that die on stage end their lives, Gaines has them walk into a forbidding box, filled with smoke. It looks like they are walking into a burning dumpster. It is never explained.
Other than the dumpster of death the directorial license taken gave the old story new energy. Telling the parts of the story not in the script but commonly known – Anne and Henry’s adultery, the fact that he then cheats on her, etc. – through dance numbers was particularly effective.
Ultimately though, the success of any telling of this particular story hinges on whether or not Henry himself is charming enough to believable as the center of all this drama, and Gregory Wooddell definitely is.
The show runs through June 16th at the Chicago Shakes main stage at the east end of Navy Pier.