One of the Bard's last stands, possibly written in collaboration with John Fletcher, Henry VIII is less a drama than a series of dying falls: dominoes accompanied by speechifying, pomp, and trumpets. Popular in the 18th and 19th centuries and famous for having been in progress when London's Globe Theatre burned to the ground in 1613, the play is rarely performed — and not for no reason. But when the renowned Shakespeare director Tina Packer takes it on, as she does here for Boston Actors' Shakespeare Project, it's an event if hardly a triumph.
The critic Harold Bloom calls Henry VIII a "dramatic poem" and a "processional." Ceremony and a few grand speeches are what it has going for it. Indeed, Shakespeare & Company founder Packer might have rendered it more successfully at her home base in Lenox, MA, where lavish masque elements and multiple supernumeraries could have bolstered the Bard's ambiguous historical pageant. But ASP favors a stripped-down style: Here ten actors undertake some 40 characters — including the Tudor court's female fool, Jane, whom Packer throws in! And the spectacle is minimal, featuring a couple of banners, a Bergomask or two, some circular dances by S&C choreographer Susan Dibble, and an effective, period-setting score by Alexander Sovronsky. A large cross looms over Janie E. Howland's simple set, with a round royal seal to serve as dance floor.
Fortunately, Henry VIII does include several welcome outbreaks of dramatic poetry — mostly in the elegiac farewells of the disgraced Duke of Buckingham, the undone Cardinal Wolsey, and the ditched Queen Katherine — and one firecracker sequence in which Katherine defies and then succumbs to Wolsey. Not surprisingly, then, the strongest performances are by Robert Walsh as a silky if Machiavellian Wolsey and Tamara Hickey as a Katherine checking righteous rage with cool dignity. ASP artistic director Allyn Burrows, though lacking the girth of Hans Holbein's famous portrait of the much-married monarch, is a convincingly troubled as well as very nimble Henry. The way Shakespeare wrote him, it's unclear whether true conscience or lust for Anne Boleyn spurs the king to cast off Katherine and Catholicism; Burrows throws in a little of both.
The other actors play multiple parts without much differentiation other than the random accent or physical exaggeration this sort of casting encourages. Apart from Omar Robinson's Chamberlain, who plays that part in what looks like Laurence Olivier's wig from Richard III, it's often hard to know (or care) who's who among the nobles and men on the street. The reliable Bobbie Steinbach portrays the female jester as well as five other parts and delivers the prologue and epilogue, seldom letting go her Charlie McCarthy of a Fool's marotte.
This Henry VIII is in some sense an outgrowth of Packer's master project, Women of Will, an epic survey of the emergence of the feminine in the works of the Bard that she performs with one other actor, interspersing scenes from the plays with commentary thereon. The last section of that performance piece (which has been seen in Boston and New York) is titled "The Maiden Phoenix," from Archbishop Cranmer's grand prophecy for the infant Queen Elizabeth at the end of Henry VIII. Packer regards the Bard's deepening of his distaff side over the course of the canon as a humanizing thing and has identified Henry VIII as a play tempered by "good women." Indeed its portrayal of Anne Boleyn, reflected in Kathryn Myles' mild performance, is not of an ambitious vixen but of a sympathetic, reluctant usurper. So it's easy to understand why, as a culmination of her Women of Will journey, Packer wanted to direct this play. It's equally clear why so few others step up to the bat.