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Henry VIII Review: Style Over Substance in One of Shakespeare’s Worst Plays

Barbara Gaines does her best with Henry VIII at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.

photo: liz lauren

King Henry VIII (Gregory Wooddell) embraces Anne Boleyn (Christina Pumariega) as Cardinal Wolsey (Scott Jaeck) watches, in Barbara Gaines’ staging of Henry VIII at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. 

Henry VIII is really the worst of Shakespeare’s Henrys.

It lacks the deep character development of Henry IV and the thrilling high stakes of Henry V. Unlike Prince Hal, the hard-partying problem child who matures into the mighty King Henry the Fifth, Henry the Eighth is a pale outline of a monarch. Scholars have long contended the play isn’t pure Shakespeare, that the Bard actually wrote it with the assistance of one John Fletcher. 

Whatever the case, the play is a pedestrian, somewhat disjointed tale of plots and politics peppered with a minimal modicum of sexual intrigue. Simply put, the fickle, petulant king isn’t very interesting.

In her version, director Barbara Gaines tries to make up for the lack of substance with an abundance of style. Henry VIII is not lacking in eye-popping pageantry and elaborate production values. It’s a sumptuous, gorgeous production performed by an able cast. But looks are skin only deep, and once you get past the glittering surface, you quickly realize that the waters are shallow indeed.

The most compelling player in the Chicago Shakespeare production isn’t Gregory Wooddell’s handsome, petulant monarch. It’s Ora Jones as Queen Katherine of Aragon, the devout wife who is summarily demoted to “princess dowager” once her husband has caught an eyeful of young Anne Boleyn. In her journey, from noble, strong-willed beauty to discarded, lost soul, Jones is the embodiment of loving dignity. She packs the most dramatic punch in Henry VIII. As Katherine’s rival, Anne Boleyn, Christina Pumariega exudes a tantalizing mix of innocence and sexual heat, a combustible combination that quite believably inflames the callow young Henry’s heedless infatuation.

Henry VIII also benefits from the ever-excellent Scott Jaeck, who brings a menacing edge to the duplicitous Cardinal Wolsey, an unctuous, dangerous conniver who cloaks his hypocrisy and underhandedness in the blood-red vestments of the Church.

The production plays out on James Noone’s minimal set, most memorable for the oceans of rippling fabric that signal extreme grandiosity and the ominous crematorium-like structure that swallows up those who fall afoul of the king. But for all its color, light, and pageantry, Gaines’ take on Henry VIII can’t fix the limp text. As for Shakespeare’s final proclamation of purple praise for Queen Elizabeth, it’s a weak ending to a weak drama.

Henry VIII continues through June 16 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave. on Navy Pier. Tickets range from $58 through $78.

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