Tuesday, April 24, 2012

ASF: "Henry VIII"

Henry VIII, or "All is True", Shakespeare's last (?) play and here intelligently adapted and directed by Robert Richmond, is the final production to be introduced into the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's "English Season" repertoire.

Its lavish pagenatry and the epic proportions of Shakespeare's script have been scaled down and amended so that eleven actors provide today's audiences access to larger than life historical characters whose legendary personae threaten to blur the truth.

Not that the Bard was always accurate in his depictions -- this play is an unabashed compliment to Elizabeth I and James I and their ancestors, among other things -- but Shakespeare has a way of making history come to life by creating characters and plots with universal appeal.

Mr. Richmond's adaptation is supported by the collaborative efforts of Tony Cisek's simple & flexible set, Phil Monat's brilliant lighting, Richelle Thompson's creative sound design, Anthony Cochrane's masterful score, and Elizabeth Novak's stunningly authentic costumes that create a world both distant and contemporary that can be observed with studied detatchment and felt with emotional engagement.

Set when Henry is seeking a divorce from Queen Katherine in order to marry Anne Boleyn and sire a male heir, the play also follows the political and personal intrigues surrounding his court. -- There are sympathetic characters like Buckingham [Paul Hebron's superlative depiction of a wrongly accused man's dignity] and Queen Katherine [Greta Lambert -- exquisite in the role] who are innocently caught up in the political intrigue; and villainous ones like Cardinal Wolsey [Rodney Clark is a duplicitous multi-dimensioned prelate]; but none are without flaws or saving graces.

Even Henry [Timothy Carter], who is often depicted as a man intent on producing a son no matter the cost to God or man, is in Mr. Carter's portrayal a man in conflict who wants both to preserve his marriage to Katherine whom he loves and legitimize second wife Anne [Vanessa Morosco] as his queen with or without the Pope's approval, meanwhile controlling the religious and political intrigue going on around him. Quite an accomplishment that has audiences shifting allegiances throughout.

A pivotal scene [a pre-divorce trial] shared between Katherine and Wolsey pits two strong-willed combatants against one another. Here, as in every scene, Mr. Clark exudes the aloof confidence Wolsey achieved by guile (he does get his comeuppance in a later agonizing scene), while Ms. Lambert's luminous Katherine is every bit his match as she sees through the Cardinal's protective veneer.

This Henry VIII ia another excellent ensemble production where eleven actors take on all the roles, two of which don't appear in Shakespeare's original: Princess Mary [Sophia Priolo] the daughter of Henry and Katherine and Will sommers [Louis Butelli], Henry'a actual court jester. -- Ms. Priolo has no dialogue -- just a lovely soprano singing voice -- but contributes much to the play as she serves as a reminder of what is to come. Mr. Butelli, on the other hand, is almost continually on stage, a kind of master of ceremonies who takes on seven other roles with simple & effective costume adjustments, athletic movement, and vocal dexterity suitable to each role, as he plays with props & puppets and deftly signals light & sound cues to move the action to the next scene.

As the plotting becomes more and more threatening, Henry takes charge, and we are left at the end with the birth of Elizabeth that signals a future prosperity, one which Shakespeare's audiences [and we] can celebrate along with him.