William Shakespeare and his company were not the first artistic entity to suck up to their funders and protectors, and they surely weren't the last. Still, it's hard to watch the last scenes of “Henry VIII” without fantasizing that Wily Old Willy had decided instead to really bite down hard on the hands that fed him and his fellow actors, and really taken on the darn Tudors, including He of the Six Wives, who certainly was no icon of Protestant British exceptionalism, despite the way his play generally has been played these last 400 years or so.
Alas, that was not Shakespeare, despite his famous way with words. At least we now have insouciant directors like Barbara Gaines, able to dilute the Shakespearean gushing and genuflecting over the arrival of a 1553 baby known as Elizabeth, thank heavens to Betsy, with a little requisite satiric remove. At Chicago Shakespeare Theater, it is the saving of “Henry VIII.”
The curiously passive, cipherlike Henry (played, as if Hooray was a handsome actor but far from the sharpest knife in the drawer, by Gregory Wooddell) at the heart of this very late history play (written after the romances, perhaps in collaboration with John Fletcher) is far removed from the Hollywood image of the bearded bacchant with the chicken legs and the multiple exes, some with heads, some not. Shakespeare only really gets into two of his wives: Katherine (an unstinting Ora Jones), a desperately sad figure here, and Anne Boleyn (the very beguiling Christina Pumariega), who gets what she wants for a while until alas, her star starts to fall, as all our stars do. Actually, it's kinda hard for Henry to get into his own play. There are some similarities with “Henry IV, Part One and Two,” in that one is watching a young leader growing in his judgment of others, but he's not an entirely satisfying protagonist. Things seem to happen to him, as distinct from being done by him, as Cardinal Wolsey (played, in a delicious manifestation of lazy power by Scott Jaeck) and other red devils pull the wool over various dull dukes and lords (the earnest likes of David Lively and Nathan M. Hosner), who finally wake up the king, albeit too late for poor Buckingham (Andrew Long).
Within that construct, Gaines basically tells her own accessible, highly entertaining story, clad in some truly gorgeous costumes from Mariann S. Verheyen and focused more on the wives and less on the maturation of a leader we already know went quickly to seed. She even prefigures sly little Anne's eventual comeuppance by making Henry a man with a wandering eye from the get-go and ending her drama with Anne's howl of anguish at this skirt-chasing jerk, an other woman staring another woman in the face. This approach was not surprising to me, given Gaines' disdain for Prince Hal in past productions of “H4” (heck, she made Hotspur her hero), but I was surprised how well it works theatrically with “H8.” You might well have trepidation with this title, but this is actually a fast-moving, hugely entertaining, very fluid production (the cutting of the text is excellent) that has a rather appealing, pulpy quality. Perchance Gaines had a kind of Andrew-Harry composite in mind for Henry, although she keeps the work rooted in its period, and James Noone's fabric-dominated design seems intended to evoke the late romances rather than the history plays. That's the right take on this hybrid play, as written by a talented guy watching out, figuratively speaking, for his Illinois pension.
With the redoubtable Mike Nussbaum installed as Gaines' wry storyteller, everything clips along not only quickly but in directorial directions one does not anticipate. There are nods to the long production history of this play as a spectacle — Anne's coronation, thanks to some jaw-dropping scenic shifts, places her literally and uneasily on a pedestal. There is much sexiness, thanks in no small part to Verheyen's hot costumes, lush original music from Lindsay Jones, and even a weird, hellish, dumpsterlike thingy into which Wolsey (and Buckingham) are dispatched, along with Catholicism. But at the end, baby Princess Liz is represented by a doll-like puppet with a moving arm and, I swear, a little patch of red hair peeping out. This was either the dumbest prop ever, or, I prefer to think, a savvy little joke designed to rescue Shakespeare from expediency and point out that the women whose lives his Henry really controlled did not enjoy such florid verbosity and fake admiration. Well, not for long.
When: Through June 16
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier
Run time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Tickets: $48-$78 at 312-595-5600 and chicagoshakes.com