When: Through June 16
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand on Navy Pier
Info:(312) 595-5600; www.chicagoshakes.com
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
England's King Henry VIII is familiar to us as the man who had six wives, who severed ties with the Roman Catholic Church in order to divest himself of one of them, had another beheaded, and along the way fathered the daughter who would become Queen Elizabeth I. We have met him by way of a slew of plays, films, novels and television shows, as well as a pop song (calling Herman's Hermits), and a classic painting (the Holbein masterpiece that depicts him as a bloated man dressed in the most extravagant of outfits).
Surprisingly, we are far less familiar with Shakespeare's portrait of the man. Director Barbara Gaines' altogether stunning production of "Henry VIII" for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater -- a Chicago premiere that has arrived here exactly 400 years after the play was first staged at London's Globe Theatre -- changes all that. It is a true revelation.
So why has this play been so neglected? Perhaps it is because some scholars believe it to be a work of joint authorship -- written late in Shakespeare's career in collaboration with his successor, John Fletcher. Some might be superstitious knowing that during a performance of the play at the Globe in 1613, a cannon shot used for special effects ignited the theatre's thatched roof and beams, resulting in a fire that burned the original building to the ground.
Or maybe it's much simpler than all that: Perhaps no one has taken a good look at the play in recent years. To be sure, Gaines has found its hidden jewel-like qualities, as well as its dark and treacherous heart. And she has gathered a formidable cast -- led by the peerless Ora Jones as Henry's first wife, Katherine of Aragon, whose portrayal is so fervent and poignant that you wonder why the play was not titled "Queen Katherine."
As with many of Shakespeare's plays about the monarchs of England, this one is awash in political intrigue, chicanery, hypocrisy, betrayal and dissembling, all shot through with a particularly strident battle between the competing (and often overlapping) powers of the church and state.
Yet the most bitter betrayal is that between husband and wife. The womanizing King Henry (Gregory Wooddell, who suggests the man at his still youthful, sexual peak), cruelly abandons his loyal, intelligent, singularly regal wife for the younger, seductive Anne Boleyn (Christina Pumariega). Katherine does not go quietly -- and Jones, radiant in her abandonment, and particularly fiery in her confrontation with the two-faced, opportunistic Cardinal Wolsey (played with perfectly smarmy arrogance by Scott Jaeck) -- easily holds the stage.
Of course Henry's betrayals do not end there. Anne's coronation may be golden in every way (it is stunningly staged), but she will fare even worse than Katherine, with her successor waiting in the wings.
Gaines lets the actors rule here, with the elaborate pageantry suggested by little more than the sweep of grand curtains (set design by James Noone), and the rustle of Mariann S. Verheyen's gorgeous metallic-hued costumes. To capture the essence of passion and lust she has turned to choreographer Harrison McEldowney who has devised several memorable sequences set to original music by Lindsay Jones.
For her chief commentator, Gaines has turned to the inimitable Mike Nussbaum, who, as the cannily adaptable Duke of Suffolk, senses just where the wind is blowing. There are notable turns by Andrew Long as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Samuel Taylor as Thomas Cromwell, Adam Brown as the flirtatious Lord Sandys and Nathan M. Hosner as Lord Chamberlain, with Kate Buddeke delicious as the Old Lady who serves Anne Boleyn and entertains fantasies of being a queen herself.
Although King Henry is obsessed with securing a male heir to the throne, Ann Boleyn gives birth to a daughter. She will be the future Queen Elizabeth I -- the woman who just happened to be Shakespeare's great patron.