BWW Reviews: A Nice Introduction to the Histories with Actor Shakespeare Project's HENRY VIII
In general, my experience with Shakespeare is fairly limited. I have done the basic exploration into his more popular comedies and tragedies, like Midsummer and Hamlet, both reading them for school and watching performances, but have never gotten particularly far past that. I have actually had zero experience with his histories; that is, until attending Actor Shakespeare Project's production of Henry VIII this weekend.
This story of a king's obsession with obtaining a male heir is not one of Shakespeare's commonly produced works, but director Tina Packer did a beautiful job of making this piece seem familiar and accessible. I generally find Actor Shakespeare Project's works to be honest, engaging, and comprehensible interpretations, and this particular production fell easily into that category. For someone who has never seen or read one of Shakespeare's histories prior, this was definitely the way to be introduced to the genre.
The production was aesthetically pleasing, with a minimalist and striking set composed primarily of a towering cross and an artistically painted clocklike piece on the floor. Scenic Designer Janie E. Howland clearly aimed to balance the business of the stage and the costumes, and the effect of her simplistic set was incredibly dramatic. The sound design, by Steven Deptula, was equally aware of itself, seeming not only appropriate to the action, but fairly relevant and current. Often, a soundscape serves as transition music, but this design was interwoven with the actors' performances and helped hugely to influence the mood of the scene. Additionally, the costume design, done by Tyler Kinney, was elegant and intricate, staying true to the history's time period and utilizing elaborate patterns and fabrics. The Cardinal's deep red velvet robes, the detail and decoration of the king, the appropriate and representative hues: all were just so carefully thought out and beautifully ornate. This piece was delightful to see.
The cast was made up of very knowledgable actors; all of whom spoke so effortlessly that the piece was accessible and understandable to even the least experienced theatre-goer. While the whole cast was present and versatile, stand outs for me were Tamara Hickey as Queen Katherine, whose desperate pleas were filled with strength and demanded respect rather than pity, Bobbie Steinbach as the Fool, who managed to cleverly comment on the action and connect personally to the audience without removing herself completely, and Craig Mathers as Buckingham and Campeius, who slid effortlessly from one role to the next, regardless of its size, changing his demeanor down to the detail of the tenor of his voice. This is a talented ensemble.
The only thing that stood out to me as questionable was the use of dialects. It appeared that those of nobility did not have any accent, but those of lower class had an extreme Cockney accent. I'm sure it was a choice, and all the power to that choice, but it just seemed a bit inconsistent in my opinion. Other than that, I have nothing to nitpick.
I will admit that this show, while beautiful, was not my cup of tea, but that being said, I am not usually drawn to Shakespeare. The show is long and feels long, but that does not speak to the quality of the production as much as my personal likes and dislikes. For Shakespeare fans, this piece is a must see. For those who are not so into Shakespeare, this might be a bit harder, but is still worth considering for the dedicated performances, exquisite costumes, and the beautiful female trio at the end of the first act. As far as Shakespeare's histories go, this was a pretty great one to see first.
Directed by Tina Packer; Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland; Lighting Design by Daniel H Jentzen; Costume Design by Tyler Kinney; Hair and Makeup Design by Amber Voner; Sound Design by Steven Deptula; Composition by Alexander Sovronsky; Choreography by Susan Dibble; Associate Direction by Brooke Hardman and Steven Barkhimer; Vocal Coaching by Karen Kopryanski; Dramatugy by Joyce Van Dyke; Stage Managed by Katie Ailinger; Production Managed by Deb Sullivan
This production of Henry VIII is playing through January 5 at the Modern Theatre at Suffolk University in Boston. For more information, visit www.actorsshakespeareproject.org.