ArtsATL > Theater > Review: Nearing completion of the Bard’s canon, Shakespeare Tavern mounts the rare “Henry VIII”

Review: Nearing completion of the Bard’s canon, Shakespeare Tavern mounts the rare “Henry VIII”

Part farce, part costume drama, part musical spectacle, the rarely performed “Henry VIII” is another worthy reclamation from the Atlanta Shakespeare Company, also known as the New American Shakespeare Tavern or simply the Tavern. The play runs through October 24.

“The Famous History of the Life of King Henry VIII” is a daunting mishmash of obscure history, multiple storylines and conflicting impulses toward tragedy, comedy and fantasy. The play’s multiple personality reflects its probable dual authorship; many scholars believe that parts were written by William Shakespeare’s protégé John Fletcher. Nearing retirement and handing the quill to Fletcher, Shakespeare in “Henry VIII” in effect gives a farewell sampling of his career. The play has Shakespearean scenes of high drama, moments reminiscent of the great comedies and dream sequences and dance numbers with the flavor of the late romances.

While the political intrigues of Henry VIII’s court grow tedious and several scenes run too long — there’s a reason the play isn’t often staged — the performance is another treat to savor as the Shakespeare Tavern enters the home stretch of performing every work connected to the Bard. After “Henry VIII,” the Tavern will have performed every First Folio play when it stages “Timon of Athens” in November.

A half-dozen U.S. theater companies have performed the 37-play Shakespeare canon, which has been the standard number for many decades. In March and April 2011, however, the Tavern will complete what is arguably the entire Shakespeare canon — 39 plays — with two works not in the First Folio: the early “Edward III,” penned by a single author who might or might not be Shakespeare, and “Two Noble Kinsmen,” another late collaboration with Fletcher.

Tavern artistic director Jeff Watkins believes that only two other theater companies have ever performed the 39-play canon: London’s Royal Shakespeare Company and, presumably, Shakespeare’s own troupe. For Atlanta’s theater scene, it should be a big deal.

In “Henry VIII,” Watkins directs the cast of stalwarts in a fast-paced, fast-spoken production that weaves the play’s unwieldy and disparate elements into a unified whole. As customary with the Tavern’s “original practice” performances, this “Henry VIII” has simple props and no scenery beyond its Elizabethan-style castle backdrop. The premium is on language, not any directorial “concept.” The performance depends on Shakespeare’s and Fletcher’s script to tell the story of Henry’s maneuvering to annul his marriage to his Spanish-born queen, Catherine of Aragon (Laura Cole), so that he can wed the younger Anne Boleyn (Mary Russell).

Although the production is basic, it is filled with magical moments. Anne Carole Butler’s sumptuous costumes richly reflect Tudor pomp and ceremony. A lovely masque dance builds to the romantic charge of Henry and Anne’s first meeting. During a surrealistic dream sequence, white, ethereal smoke rises from the stage. Rivka Levin sets the early-Renaissance musical mood with haunting harp playing and singing.

Despite its gaudy title, the play actually gives a severely truncated and highly sanitized version of the tyrannical king whose consuming desire to produce a male heir led to England’s break, for better and worse, from the Catholic Church. Written after Queen Elizabeth’s death, the play shows the continued political necessity of giving an overwhelmingly positive spin to her family. Totally ignored are unpleasant facts such as Henry’s eventual beheading of Anne, Elizabeth’s mother, and his continued discarding of wives. Contrary to the historical reality, here he joyously welcomes the birth of Elizabeth; the infant is Daddy’s Girl. Like many of the Bard’s history plays, it’s theater as propaganda.

While Henry VIII is a constant, hovering presence, the play’s most soaring dramatic moments derive from the evil Cardinal Wolsey’s stratagems against the virtuous Catherine of Aragon. As Catherine, company mainstay Laura Cole (at left) delivers a vivid, complex performance, although her Spanish accent at times sounds affected and artificial. A long and melodramatic late scene depicting the increasingly saintly Catherine in exile and near death tests the audience’s patience. Another Tavern regular, J. Tony Brown, colors the major role of Cardinal Wolsey with a palette of duplicity, malice, self-righteousness and hypocrisy, although he evokes the audience’s sympathy at last with an expressed return to simple Christian beliefs.

As Henry VIII, Troy Willis in his brilliant robes and caps looks as if he stepped out of a history book. He shows Henry’s extravagance and impulsiveness, but his performance is one-dimensional — although Henry VIII here is admittedly a historical cartoon, without the complexities of great, tormented Shakespearean characters such as King Lear.

“Henry VIII” often lacks the power and focus of Shakespeare’s major works, but the Tavern still finds the strengths of the play with scenes of enchantment, drama and laughter. Again, it’s a rare opportunity to see Shakespeare in full.

For a more historically accurate view of Henry VIII’s reign, the company is also performing in repertory “Anne of the Thousand Days,” American playwright Maxwell Anderson’s 1948 take on the same events. The same actors perform the same roles in “Anne,” which starts preview performances September 26 and will run through October 23.

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