A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Austin Blunk, Courtney McGowan, & Vanessa Morosco; photo: Jerry Dalia

This staple of outdoor summer stages—Shakespeare’s most frequently performed play—is on view in a delightful production from The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey through July 30. STNJ’s annual outdoor productions are performed in the beautiful Greek amphitheatre of the College of Saint Elizabeth in Florham Park, N.J. (take cushions).

STNJ artistic director Bonnie Monte directed the production, and she must have had a very precise idea in mind, because she served as the set and costume designer as well, inspired perhaps by Shakespeare’s own words in the play:

“I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream,
past the wit of man to say what dream it was.”

A Midsummer Night's Dream - 2

Felix Mayes; photo: Jerry Dalia

The sets on the outdoor stage are always fairly simple, but the costumes were knock-your-socks off. Creative recycling was the theme, with iridescent CD’s forming a glittering backdrop for both the forest outside Athens—the fairy world—and a scaly cape for fairy queen Titania. Puck was gleefully porcupinish with headgear and epaulets sprouting colorful chopsticks? pens? A bathtub was filled with wine corks. More than thirty individuals and families received recognition in the program for aid in collecting the hundreds of “items of refuse” that went into the production. This made sense, actually, fairies being notorious pilferers.

We went to a matinee where numerous children were in the audience—an outdoor theater is one venue where sitting still and silent in your seat is not an absolute requirement, particularly for a comedy. Some of the complicated plot—the two sets of characters, the two sets of lovers, the play-within-a-play—may have been difficult for the youngest audience members to follow precisely, but there was such effective physical comedy and so many hilarious touches, like the performance of Ian Hersey as the ass, Bottom, they stuck with it happily.

The cast had many suitably antic performances, including the aforementioned Hersey and Felix Mayes as Puck, Courtney McGowen as Lion, Vanessa Morosco as Titania, and all of the fancifully costumed fairies.

STNJ produces an excellent KnowTheShow guide. Call box office for tickets (973-408-5600) or email: BoxOffice@ShakespeareNJ.org

On Stage: The Merchant of Venice

Merchant of Venice

Rachel Towne as Nerissa (left) & Melissa Miller as Portia; photo: Jerry Dalia.

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey opens its 2017 season with Shakespeare’s dark comedy, The Merchant of Venice, about, as the theater describes it “A money-obsessed, patriarchal, dysfunctional society where wealth bestows power; one in which women cannot determine their own fate, and one marked by religious and racial prejudice.” Hmm. This production, which opened Saturday night, May 20, runs through June 4, and is directed by award-winning actor Robert Cuccioli.

Perhaps this play is not often performed because modern playgoers (and producers) are uncomfortable with its blatant anti-Semitism. Such views persisted in England, of course, through the eras of Dickens, Disraeli, Holocaust denial, and may even be again on the rise. It’s talking about them that’s so uncomfortable. Cuccioli, the cast, and the theater deserve praise for not soft-pedaling the ugliness of racial hatred. Shylock (Andrew Weems) is as intransigent in his demands as his foes expect him to be.

The gist of the story, you may recall, is that prominent Venetian merchant Antonio (Brent Harris), loans his friend Bassanio (John Keabler) money so he can woo the estimable Portia (Melissa Miller). Convinced several of his ships will soon arrive and refill his coffers, Antonio borrows the needed sum from his old adversary, Shylock, and agrees to the whimsical idea that, if he cannot repay the debt, he’ll let the Jew take a pound of his flesh.

When Antonio’s ships are lost, Shylock invokes that clause. Portia, disguised as a learned young judge, argues the case to save Antonio (“The quality of mercy is not strain’d, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath”) , aided by her maidservant Nerissa (Rachel Towne), her pretended law clerk.

That part of the story has all the makings of tragedy, certainly high drama. The comedy comes from the suitors for Portia’s hand, made to choose among caskets of gold, silver, and lead, only one of which holds her portrait and her promise to marry. With great shows of manly confidence, they uniformly guess wrong, until Bassanio . . . you can guess the rest. Portia and Nerissa tease their men mercilessly, but not so frivolously as to form too great a contrast with the blacker heart of the play, the downfall of Shylock.

Weems, Harris, and Miller give especially strong and moving performances. However, the entire cast does an admirable job keeping the action going and creating interesting, compelling characters. They’re believably outraged at Shylock and charmed by Portia and Nerissa. In addition to those named, the cast includes Ademide Akintilo, Amaia Arana, Jeffrey M. Bender (his Prince of Arragon is priceless), Byron Clohessy, Ian Gould, Robert S. Gregory, Jay Leibowitz, Anthony Michael Martinez, Joe Penczak,  and Tug Rice.

Production credits to Brian Ruggaber (excellent set design); Käri B. Bentson (sound), Michael Giannitti (lighting); Candida Nichols (lovely 1900-ish costumes); and Alison Cote (production stage manager).

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

Richard III – at STNJ

richard-iii, Gretchen Hall, Derek Wilson

Gretchen Hall & Derek Wilson; photo: Jerry Dalia

Shakespeare’s quintessential villain erupts into being in this Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey production directed by Paul Mullins (on view through November 6). The cast is huge—16 actors playing 22 parts—but all depends on the sly malice and believability of the title character, a role Derek Wilson fulfills admirably.

Shakespeare’s Richard is more duplicitous than history supports, since in the Elizabethan era, theater was required to explain and justify the monarchy, but the play’s machinations seem perfectly plausible in Wilson’s hands. Fawning here, back-stabbing there, and slyly engaging the audience in his treachery.

The story describes the culmination of the War of the Roses, and it’s a familiar one, as most theater goers have seen one or more productions of this classic. In (very) short, Richard murders his way to the throne of England, but getting the crown isn’t keeping it. The play’s most famous lines come at the beginning  and end, but like all Shakespeare’s plays, it is filled with juicy bits. Here’s one for this political season: “And thus I clothe my naked villainy with old odd ends stolen out of holy writ; and seem a saint, when most I play the devil.”

STNJ has provided a helpful Plantagenet family tree in the program, which, abbreviated though it is, is at first glance a stumper. I studied it before the show and had a few relationships sorted out, and at the intermission I gave it another go, putting everyone in place.

In addition to Wilson’s Richard, the many fine performances include those of the three principal women: Gretchen Hall (Queen Elizabeth, wife of Richard’s brother, King Edward IV), Carol Halstead (Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s “warrior queen,” who lives up to her sobriquet), and Amaia Arana (Lady Anne, widow of Margaret and Henry’s son, Edward, and later wife of Richard). In Shakespeare’s story, Richard instigated the murder of both Henry VI and Edward. For these crimes, Margaret and Anne hate him. The widowed Queen Elizabeth has reasons to both hate and fear him when her two sons “the little princes in the tower” are believed murdered at Richard’s behest.

Though lots of murder is talked about, most of it occurs off-stage. In keeping with the production’s modern dress, there is gunfire as well as swordplay. Richard III is a long play, but the energy of the cast and the direction (as well as some judicious trimming) make the story move apace.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train), and until October 30 you can also see there an exhibit of Shakespeare’s First Folio, on tour from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

STNJ has prepared an excellent “Know the Show Guide.” For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)(revised)

Shakespeare Theatre of NJYou may recall with delight the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), whose madcap condensation of Shakespeare’s plays began making the rounds in 1981 and became one of the theater world’s most-produced plays. Some of the funniest material from the play’s many international productions has made its way into this new version—“updated for the 21st century”—by the three founding members of RSC: Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield.

It’s a fast-moving farce, well suited for The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s (STNJ) annual outdoor stage production. This new production has new surprises, including a rap version of Othello (thank you, Lin-Manuel Miranda). As directed by Jeffrey M. Bender, it’s as antic and energetic as its predecessor. It would have to be, since (abridged)(revised) presents all 37 plays and the sonnets, after a fashion, in 97 minutes. There’s one intermission an hour in—Red Bull break for the cast, methinks.

The cast includes STNJ regular Jon Barker (a master of body language), Connor Carew, and Patrick Toon, each changing personae at the blink of an eye or slapping on of a wig. Carew’s Ophelia is hilarious, and Toon is a lustily belligerent Romeo. From time to time, there are bits of audience participation, perfect for the relaxed atmosphere of the outdoor stage.

The clever set comprises giant volumes of the Bard’s works. The books’ spines conceal doors, prop drawers, and the like. While the set and the setting are great, and the cast does an amazing job, the script itself fits my mother-in-law’s ambiguous phrase, “it is what it is.” A couple of the most familiar plays—Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet—receive more attention than the others, and the roller-coaster ride through the comedies is great fun.

We overheard that some of the reworking of material was intended to make this play—and perhaps Shakespeare’s works themselves—“more attractive to a younger audience.” In line with that goal, tickets are free for kids 18 and younger at the Outdoor Stage, thanks to grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and Bank of America.

Presumably, the younger audience in question means 14-year-old boys, given the emphasis on bawdy humor of the type that makes them giggle knowingly. The script has enough gags—verbal and sight—that there’s no need to tarry in some of the more obvious places (“the last four letters” of Coriolanus, for example). While what people will find funny is heavily a matter of individual taste, Sunday’s audience at STNJ found enough of what they liked to give the performers steady laughter and an enthusiastic reception.

Through July 31 at the beautiful outdoor Greek Theatre on the campus of the College of Saint Elizabeth, Morristown, New Jersey. Arrive early, take a picnic.

For tickets, call the STNJ box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the box office online.

*****Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: A Novel

Hamlet, Kenneth Branagh

Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet

By A.J. Hartley and David Hewson, narrated by Richard Armitage – Ok, Ok, before you say “been there, done that Hamlet thing—five times, maybe ten!” this is another Hamlet animal altogether. As an inveterate audiobook fan, I will say that the Hartley/Hewson Macbeth, narrated by Alan Cumming (be still, my heart) was one of the best audio books I’ve ever “read.” So, I was eagerly anticipating listening to the their Hamlet.

Perhaps this Hamlet doesn’t quite reach the stratospheric genius of Macbeth, but it gives the listener plenty to chew on. I think Hartley (a Shakespeare scholar) and Hewson (a mystery/thriller writer, interviewed here)—an inspired pairing if there ever was one—have truly done it again. They fill in the leaps and gaps in the Bard’s plot, they provide background information that heightens appreciation of the stakes and therefore the tension, they infuse the text with modern psychological insights. In short, they have made Hamlet more real than perhaps you have ever felt him before.

No need to dwell on plot. We all know it. But what they have done in novelizing Shakespeare’s text is brilliant. First, they’re fleshed out some (potential) action scenes. The play’s glancing reference to pirates receives a full treatment here, which shows Hamlet to be more a man of action than the black-garbed, skull-staring  brooder we have come to associate with the Danish prince. Ophelia’s death also has a much more robust development than the usual wan, flower-strewn suicide.

Perhaps Hartley and Hewson’s cleverest stroke was in creating a son of Yorick to be Hamlet’s constant friend and goad, to share and prompt him with the lines of the famous soliloquies. I was so taken with this creation that I didn’t fully appreciate its subtle origins and intent until the story’s conclusion. Listening to the interviews with Hartley and Hewson that follow the novel explains how and why they arrived at this fictional device.

Purists, take note. There is nothing here that is not fully suggested or believable in the context of the play. Before you get your doublet in a knot, recall that the play itself was not created out of cloth entire, but built on folk tales and previous works. The authors are merely taking the creative armamentarium of Shakespeare himself and aiming it at 21st century sensibilities.

Hamlet is a ghost story; it is a murder story; it is a tale of guilt and revenge; it is about treachery and lust. Everything that makes a good crime thriller!

Richard Armitage is well suited to take on the narrative challenge. He has appeared in numerous television and film roles and played John Proctor in The Old Vic’s production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, where he earned an Olivier Award nomination. He won the 2014 Best Audiobook of the Year Award for this rendering of Hamlet. While it’s also available for the Kindle, let Armitage tell you the story.

This review appeared on CrimeFictionLover.com.

Still Dreaming

Bottom, Misummer Night's Dream

Harold Cherry as Bottom in “Still Dreaming”

In the documentary film Still Dreaming, a dozen residents of an assisted living residence take on a very challenging six-week task—to learn and perform Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Most are Broadway stage veterans—actors, dancers and musicians—who reside at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, New Jersey. Despite frailties such as decreased vision, dementia, and depression, they eagerly take on demanding roles.

Filmmakers Hank Rogerson and Jilann Spitzmiller say they “discovered a group of people who have spent their whole lives following their dreams, some wildly successful, and some hardly at all. And here they are, retired, supposedly having given it all up. What we witnessed was an awakening, and it was truly profound and most certainly inspiring.”

Several of the performers are particularly engaging. Charlotte Fairchild, who plays Puck, had leading roles in Damn Yankees and 42nd Street and was the understudy to Angela Lansbury in Mame. She has Alzheimer’s disease and cannot retain much, but she still has a strong, clear soprano voice and finds joy in her portrayal. Dimo Condos, who plays Theseus/Oberon, is an eccentric, solitary man who studied with Uta Hagen, Elia Kazan, and Harold Klurman at the renowned Actors Studio. He is a bully, impatient with cast members who don’t remember their lines or lose their place. But he retains the ability to immerse himself in character and involve the audience.

Joan Stein, the production’s pianist, is literally bent over the piano stool, but adds punch and panache to the show. She was a pianist on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, among other credits. Her playing becomes more vigorous and emphatic as the rehearsals progress. Aideen O’Kelly bows out of the production because she cannot see the script well enough to learn her lines. During her Broadway career, she appeared in Othello with James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer (a production your website host Vicki Weisfeld saw in Washington, D.C.). Now she must watch from the sidelines.

In Midsummer, as in real life, “people live in colliding worlds of reality, illusion, and delusion” and they also may “age into some degree of dementia in which memories blur and the present becomes a slippery slope,” suggested Eric Minton in a review of the film on Shakespeareances.com. This turn of mind is why the setting for Still Dreaming, which at first seems so odd, turns out to be so right.

The full-length feature film is currently doing well on the festival circuit, most recently screening at the Sedona Independent Film Festival. The filmmakers hope that this exposure brings opportunity for wider distribution. Learn more at the Still Dreaming website. Reportedly, it will become available on DVD in April.

This review is by Tucson-based guest reviewer Jodi Goalstone, who writes the highly entertaining blog Going Yard, Offbeat Baseball Musings and is gearing up for a new baseball season!

 

Charles III

Charles III

Tim Pigott-Smith in Charles III

The prize-winning play King Charles III, billed as a “future history play” and now on Broadway at the Music Box theatre, is a compelling theatrical conjecture. It anticipates the time when Queen Elizabeth is gone and her oldest son, Charles, is in position finally to become king. Charles, alas, has always been a person from whom little has been expected (some would say this is one reason QEII has hung on so long), a view which he himself has contributed to. His perceived rejection of Diana—“the world’s princess”—in favor of the unloved Camilla Parker-Bowles added fire to his critics, who had previously mustered little more than a yawn.

In the play, the Liberal Prime Minister assumes Charles will play the role of thoughtful rubber-stamp that his mother did, so well portrayed in The Audience (Helen Mirren as Queen) on Broadway earlier this year. Not so. In their very first meeting, Charles objects to a Liberal bill to restrict freedom of the press. As in a high-stakes chess game, parliamentary move and monarchal countermove ensue. In the fragile edifice of his family, the issue of controls on the frenzied media are of more than academic interest. The plot keeps turning and turning, and I won’t say more about it, except that I found it riveting.

Let’s talk about style. The simple set is intended to remind the audience of the Old Globe, showing shows five sides of an elegant brick structure. A frieze running around the entirety, about ten feet above the stage, comprises semi-abstract faces lit in various ways to denote “the people”—crowds, demonstrators, in other words, those most likely to be affected by the affairs of state on which Charles aspires to be a benevolent, active force.

The echoes of Shakespeare are more than visual. We have the machinations of Lady Macbeth, the indecisiveness of Richard II, the desperation of Lear. Written in blank verse, playwright Mike Bartlett’s language is often given an Elizabethan cadence, “Husband,” Kate calls to William, and nearly every scene ends in a rhyming couplet. This is artificial, but doesn’t seem artifice. Rather it reflects the tragedy, if tragedy is defined in the dramatic sense, as a fall from a great height, playing out before us. We are seeing critical precedents discussed and the weight of 1600 years of history. Such events are worthy of Shakespearean language in the country’s leaders, and not the territory of “Oh, whatever” or a graceless “WTF?”

The cast, which comes from London’s prestigious Almeida Theatre, is excellent. By training and experience, it manages this demanding language well. Tim Pigott-Smith is a heart-breaking Charles (The Telegraph of London calls it “the performance of his career”), and Margot Leicester is perfect as Camilla. I also especially liked pencil-thin Lydia Wilson as Kate and Richard Goulding as “the ginger idiot,” Harry. Adam James and Anthony Calf were fine as the Liberal and Conservative leaders, respectively. The program notes that many of the actors had vocal training, and that stands them in good stead in various scenes, in which solemn chanting (this is not a musical!) establishes a moody atmosphere, which is not to say there are no laughs elsewhere.

Bartlett also wrote the theatrical version of Chariots of Fire (seen in London in 2012 and greatly admired), among many others, and won a Best New Play award for Charles III. It’s nice to see something on Broadway that grapples with thought-worthy issues, including questions for which Americans are merely interested observers, like the future of the monarchy.

As in London, the production is directed by Rupert Goold, the award-winning Artistic Director of Almeida Theatre. I wondered what the U.K. critics thought of it, and found they quite approved. For example, critic Michael Billington in The Guardian said, “It gains traction as it goes along and by the end has acquired a borrowed grandeur through its Shakespearean form and a tragic dimension through the performance of Tim Pigott-Smith.” Agree. Whole-heartedly.

Equivocation

GunpowderPlot, quills

(artwork: Scott McKowen for STNJ)

Regrettably, this review comes after the run of Equivocation by award-winning playwright Bill Cain has ended at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Still, I hope you’ll watch for this sharply witty and thought-provoking play locally or, if you’re from the NJ-NY region, will take a good look at STNJ’s future offerings. They’re having a terrific season.

It’s 1606, King James I is on the English throne (one of the country’s Scottish kings), and he has written a story. Powerful Prime Minister Sir Robert Cecil asks Shag (Shakespeare) to turn the king’s story into a play, with the promise of considerable reward to the Globe theater company if he is successful, and, if he is not, well . . . best not dwell on the details.

The story deals with the very recent event known as The Gunpowder Plot, in which a group of Catholic men tunneled under Parliament, smuggled in 36 barrels of gunpowder, and would have blown up the king, his family, many notables, and the whole House of Lords on Parliament’s opening day. A mysterious letter alerts the king, and the plot is foiled. A man named Guy Fawkes is caught, and the plotters, whose names are gradually extracted via torture, are hideously murdered. Cecil knows a dramatization by Shag will fix the treasonous details about the powder plot in the memory of history.

While the theater company is overjoyed by the prospect of a royal commission, Shag resists writing about current-day events, especially as he comes to doubt the truth of the official version. The risks of being truthful are grimly evident, yet he won’t write a lie.

But what is a lie? The arrest of Father Henry Garnet, a Jesuit who wrote a book called Equivocation, brings this question to light. The priest asks his inquisitor, “If the king were in your house, and his enemies came to your door asking if he were there, would you say ‘yes’—and betray him—or would you say ‘no’—a lie?” Equivocation, the priest tells Shag, allows you to look at the question behind the question. And the real question in this instance is, “May I come in and kill the king?” And the answer is “no.” This is the key to resolving Shag’s struggle with the king’s powder plot story, too.

Cain’s play is deeply interesting historically, politically, religiously, theatricallly, and, as director Paul Mullins said in a post-show discussion, if you want to see it as current-day political allegory, “that’s OK, too.” At the same time it’s fast-moving, full of action, humor, and clever ripostes. Only six cast members play all the parts—many of them taking on 10 or more roles—and yet the staging was so expertly managed and so well acted that who they were playing was perfectly clear, moment to moment. This production had some shocking special effects too.

STNJ newcomers this year Matthew Stucky as Sharpe (a player, the King, plotter Wintour, etc.) and Dominic Comperatore as Nate (a player, Cecil, etc.), and long-time company utility infielder Kevin Isola as Armin (a player, a witch, states’ attorney, Lady Macbeth, etc.) deserve special mention, though all performances were strong.

Regarding The Gunpowder Plot, the program notes say, “The only thing we know with certainty about the event itself is that it could not possibly have occurred in the way the government claimed.” Accepted at face value for centuries, the government’s story has elicited more recent doubts, and even Parliament’s official website suggests the plot might have been the work of agents-provocateurs who wanted to discredit the Jesuits and cement the Protestant religion in the land.

Weekend Double-Play

The Guardsman

Jon Barker, Victoria Mack, The Guardsman, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

Jon Barker & Victoria Mack in STNJ’s The Guardsman

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (STNJ) continues its 2015 season—a celebration of Bonnie J. Monte’s 25th season as artistic director—with another play about actors, this one The Guardsman, by Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár. In it, a young actor begins to suspect his wife is tiring of him and pretends to be a member of the Royal Guard—he can do wigs and costumes after all—to see whether she’ll be tempted. At the end, it seems he’s learned more about himself than he has about her constancy.

The play has many laugh-out-loud moments as the actor struggles to maintain two personas at the same time. Should he be flattered that the actress seems attracted to the dashing guardsman, or offended? He’s both, alternatingly. Talented company regular Jon Barker conveys every bit of this confusion with his expressive body language. Victoria Mack as his wife plays a more opaque character, and in the talk-back at the end, the audience was divided about whether she saw through his disguise. Brent Harris was excellent as the Critic, who is the foil to both actors’ longings.

The play has been mounted several times in English, and is usually played as romantic farce, but Monte believes its frivolous exterior has obscured darker messages at its heart. To pursue this line of thought, she obtained a new literal translation by the playwright’s great-grandson and used that for her adaptation. She found it has “an extraordinary provocative, ground-breaking, heart-breaking, and disturbing inner core” that provokes gales of laughter at the same time it “questions identity, reality, perception and what it takes to validate our existence.”

Love’s Labour’s Lost

On Sunday, we saw Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, one of his many comedies about romantic confusion, this year’s outdoor stage production by the STNJ. Excellent comedic performances by the entire cast. I had both my sun and rain umbrellas with me, though the threatened rain never materialized. These productions are always a highlight of the summer, and the cast manages not to faint in the heat, despite their elaborate costumes and the play’s lively staging, including running up the stairs of the amphitheater at the College of St. Elizabeth.

outdoor theater, STNJ

Set for the outdoor production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, STNJ

Coming Up Next

Yesterday was the last performance for both these plays, a successful continuance of this anniversary season. Next up: Shaw’s Misalliance, August 5 – 30, in which Shaw “gleefully exposes and dismantles the idiosyncrasies of the British classes and their various ‘family values.’”

Also, some critics believe The Guardsman inspired Harold Pinter’s The Lover, whose similar plot likewise melds comedy and drama and has been played both ways. STNJ will have a reading of The Lover on Monday evening, August 17, to explore those possibilities.

Henry VIII

Henry VIII, English king

(photo: wikimedia.org)

Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, a wildly popular play up until the 1800’s, is rarely performed today. Surely not because we like our history delivered with somewhat more accuracy, and surely not because producers are unable to cut its approximately six-hour running time down to a more manageable two-and-a-quarter, as the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has done in its current, excellent production. The prologue includes a bit of optimistic false advertising in that regard:

Those that come to see
Only a show or two, and so agree
The play may pass, if they be still and willing,
I’ll undertake may see away their shilling
Richly in two short hours
.

Today, the play is probably best known for a mishap during a 1613 performance, in which the play’s cannonfire set afire the thatched roof of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, which burned to the ground.

Twenty-four pivotal years are condensed in the play’s action, which covers the early days of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon up to and including his infatuation and marriage with Anne Bullen (Boleyn) and birth of their daughter, Elizabeth. The end of the play is a long forward-looking tribute to the future of baby Elizabeth, anticipating a glorious era, her father’s legacy.

Although most modern dramatizations of Henry’s life linger on the problem of the six wives, the period of the play is much more interesting for the conflicts between Henry and the Pope and his agent in England, Cardinal Wolsey (subject of Hilary Mantel’s award winning Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies). Although the conflict came to a head over Henry’s wish for annulment of his marriage to Catherine that would free him to marry Anne, it was fed by Henry’s desire to acquire the massive wealth and property owned by the country’s hundreds of churches, monasteries, church schools, priories, convents, and other religious entities. His break with Rome led, of course, to formation of the Church of England with him at its head and turned that country from a Catholic to a Protestant one—a course his daughter Elizabeth vigorously pursued in her long reign.

The STNJ production is brilliantly acted, with special praise going to Philip Goodwin, who inhabits the role of Cardinal Wolsey like a second skin, David Foubert’s King Henry, and Jessica Wortham’s Queen Catherine. The “just enough” set design offers plenty of flexibility and space for the action, allowing large groups of the cast of 15 to be comfortably on stage at once, including for some period dance scenes (Henry was a fair composer). The costume design is spectacular.

I wondered at the drawing on the cover of the playbill of the baby wearing Henry’s locket only to realize that in this play, the baby is much the point.