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PHOTO BY LEE A. BUTZ Susan Riley Stevens (Queen Katherine), PHOTO BY LEE A. BUTZ Susan Riley Stevens (Queen Katherine), "Henry VIII," through Aug. 4, Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival

THEATER REVIEWS 'Henry VIII': An abridged production too far at PSF

Wednesday, July 31, 2013 by PAUL WILLISTEIN in Focus

The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival (PSF) production of "Henry VIII," through Aug. 4, Schubert Theatre, Labuda Center for the Arts, DeSales University, Center Valley, is a curiosity.

The so-called history play, in its PSF debut (as is "Measure for Measure," also through Aug. 4), is said by some scholars to have been a collaboration between William Shakespeare and John Fletcher. "Henry VIII" was first performed some 400 years before no-fault divorce, June 29, 1613, at the Globe Theatre, which burned to the ground when a cannon in the play misfired and ignited the thatched roof.

"Henry VIII" has to do with Britain's 15th and early-16th century Tudor Court, whereby King Henry booted his queen, Catherine, from the throne in order to marry Anne Boleyn. Henry broke with the Pope and the Vatican in Rome, Italy, and established the Church of England.

The themes in "Henry VIII" are as noteworthy as the birth of Britain's future Queen Elizabeth ("this royal infant"), depicted toward the play's conclusion, and the July 22 birth of the royal baby, King George Alexander Louis, Prince of Cambridge, to Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, and the Duchess of Cambridge Catherine "Kate" Middleton.

"Henry VIII" is rife with historic figures of similar peerage. Because actors are playing multiple roles and the play is staged with a PSF costume-shop grab-bag of attire, and lacks set, lighting and sound designers and a director, following the storyline is tricky for non-Shakespeare devotees, who may be as clueless as modern media consumers as to the significance of royal proceedings.

There is a sort of "talking-head" commentator (Anthony Lawton) in the "Henry VIII" prologue-epilogue and that helps in the brisk two-hour production.

Even though "Henry VIII" is one of Shakespeare's rarely performed plays, it has many merits: a wonderful felicity with the language ("his abject object," "a killing frost") and a couple of terrific speeches. And there is the caliber of actors on the PSF stage.

Richard B. Watson, cutting a most striking figure as Cardinal Wolsey, imbues the pivotal role with a cunning anger beneath a patina of glory.

Susan Riley Stevens, as Queen Katherine (Catherine in actuality), is a strong and tragic heroine. Her monologue during the trial is the play's dramatic apogee.

Ian Bedford, as King Henry The Eighth, is an imposing presence and follows the role's arc from inaction to action splendidly.

Brandon Meeks, as Duke of Norfolk, creates an earnest figure.

Emily Kiser, as Anne Bullen (Boleyn), King Henry's second wife, radiates a vision of gentleness.

Christopher Patrick Mullen, as Duke of Buckingham, is a character of forthrightness. Mullen plays three other roles, including Thomas Cromwell.

In addition to his interlocutor role, Lawton impresses in three minor roles, including Earl of Surrey.

Leo Bond is the Duke of Suffolk.

Peter Schmitz plays two roles, including Lord Chamberlain and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Peter Danelski is in four supporting roles. Marc Bitler has three minor roles, as does Jonathan Wallace.

Phoenix Best portrays Katherine's attendant.

"Henry VIII" is a play of pomp and circumstance. The PSF production has plenty of circumstance. Pomp? Not so much.

Staging "Henry VIII" in "the presumed Elizabethhan rehearsal method," however well-intentioned, lacks the full force of PSF research, creativity and production values. The impression is of a dress rehearsal. The actors deserve more arrows in their quivers.

The 450th birth date of Shakespeare (born 1564) is next year. Here's hoping for more complete works, rather than a Shakespeare abridged production at PSF in 2014.