Playwright: William Shakespeare. At: Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave. Tickets: 312-595-5600; www.chicagoshakes.com; $58-$78. Runs through: June 16
The image of Henry VIII indelibly imprinted in American memory is that of the fat and hearty Charles Laughton in the 1933 film. The reason behind its persistence is that the final chapter in Shakespeare's history of English rule boasts no thrilling battle scenes, no bloody assassinations, no ghosts or witches, nor clowns recounting droll wisdom, or interrupting the action with a song. Oh, the text includes a few processionals, a dream-sequence and a party, but the story of the six times-wedded monarch is nevertheless scarce on sex and violence, making it one of the Bard's most rarely performed plays.
So what do you do when your script lacks dazzle? You ramp up the spectacle, that's what. You need sex? When the married Henry meets the woman who will become his second wife, their chaste palm-to-palm dancing quickly progresses to groin-to-groin, and from there to fevered adagios. You want violence? The Cardinals Wolsey and Campeius are not above using literal "strong-arm" persuasion on the soon-to-be deposed queen Katherine, whose dying dreams are haunted byyou guessed itghostly visions of happier days with a loving and attentive husband. Oh, and since the REAL star of the show (at its premiere performance, anyway) would have been the newborn princess and future sovereign Elizabeth, you pour on the pageantry for the coronation of the royal mother and christening ceremonies of the royal infant, allowing their pomp to be perceived by modern audiences as ironic commentary on the underhanded methods employed in their accomplishment.
If director Barbara Gaines' solution succeeds in lending visual pizzazz to her prosaic tale of power-brokers behaving badlydid I mention the giant dumpster-like incinerator into whose fiery interior dissenters are escorted through ever-larger doors, or the scenic and costume design incorporating more flying silk than a parachuting tournament?it also makes for a Henry VIII with curiously little Henry in it.
Surrounded by the muscular performances of Chicago's foremost character actorsScott Jaeck as the scheming Wolsey; Ora Jones as the matronly Katherine; the trio of Mike Nussbaum, David Lively and Nathan M. Hosner as a classical-tragedy chorus of lordsGregory Wooddell's Henry comes off as a slackerly stripling who parrots his elders while thinking with his, um, Richard the Third. Ultimately, our sympathies are reserved, not for the potentate striving to retain the family property, but for the hapless subordinates whose fortunes are tied to so mercurial a seeker.