Review: Henry VIII (Chicago Shakespeare Theater)

| May 14, 2013
Ora Jones, Gergory Wooddell, Scott Jaeck, David Darlow in Henry VIII at Chicago Shakespeare       
Henry VIII 

Written by William Shakespeare 
Directed by Barbara Gaines
at Chicago Shakespeare, Navy Pier (map)
thru June 16  |  tickets: $58-$78   |  more info
Check for half-price tickets 
        Read entire review


An Elizabethan feast of bravura performances


Gregory Wooddell and Christina Pumariega in Henry VIII at Chicago Shakespeare.

Chicago Shakespeare presents
Henry VIII

Review by John Olson

He’s the character we may know best among all Shakespeare’s title characters, in a play likely to be one with which we’re less familiar. He’s Henry VIII – the king with the six wives (though not simultaneously). One divorced, two beheaded, one died of an illness, one marriage annulled, and one who outlived him. Henry VIII was immortalized in films like “A Man for All Seasons” and “Anne of the Thousand Days”, but so far as Shakespeare goes, his story is one of the Bard’s last plays and one of his minor ones. In fact, it’s not even “pure” Shakespeare: scholars agree it was written in collaboration with a younger writer named John Fletcher. It doesn’t have the same tragic arc of other Shakespearean title characters. Henry is the central character, but not really its protagonist. The play is more concerned with the people around him, including the wives and enemies who he mostly executed or otherwise destroyed.  Much of it is talky, and its many intrigues are communicated largely through long expositional speeches. The language sounds to my ear less florid than most Shakespeare, and I only caught one great quote (“Men’s evil manners live in brass, their virtues we write in water”), but Henry VIII is more than a museum piece for Shakespeare completists: It’s a fascinating play with rich, large characters that – in this production – are performed marvelously.

Gregory Wooddell and William Dick in Henry VIII at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.Let’s start with Henry. The play covers his life from roughly age 31 to 43 – before he became the rotund caricature of his later years. This Henry, as played by Gregory Wooddell, is youthful, handsome, energetic, sexy and sexual.  Barbara Gaines’s staging clearly takes the point that Henry’s discarding of his wives was more due to his continual lust for new women than his difficulty in getting a male heir from his wives. Wooddell’s Henry is charismatic – at times joyful and loving, at others, flirtatious and finally furious and dangerous. The New York based Wooddell is joined by a cast of some of Chicago’s greatest working actors, and they have ample opportunity to show their stuff.  First among this impressive crew is Scott Jaeck as Cardinal Wolsey – manipulative, powerful, frantic and ultimately broken after he falls from Henry’s favor.  Jaeck dominates the first half-hour of the second half and he’s spellbinding.

Ora Jones plays Katherine of Aragon, the monarch’s first wife. Jones is similarly impressive, showing Katherine’s journey from reigning queen to a divorced and banished “Princess Dowager” when she’s gravely ill and ultimately forgives Henry’s actions.  It’s in that latter section halfway through the second half that Jones has her meatiest moments. They include a dream dance sequence in which the ailing Katherine imagines herself dancing romantically with Henry against a starry sky, to some of the lovely and elegant original music by Lindsay Jones. Katherine’s confidant is warmly played by Kevin Gudahl, who as Griffith delivers the aforementioned “written in water” quote. As the nobles who despise and ultimately outlast Wolsey, there’s Mike Nussbaum and David Lively. Nussbaum is a particular delight – delivering insights about Wolsey and the King with the witty and satiric tone that director Gaines has employed to entertaining effect.

Gregory Wooddell, Christina Pumariega and Scott Jaeck in Henry VIII at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

Gaines’s production is not big on scenery – James Noone mostly uses giant flowing fabrics to suggest locales and changes of scene. He also gives us a huge and terrifying fiery furnace into which characters symbolically walk into their death. Even without flats or backdrops, we’re drawn into the era with Mariann S. Verheyen’s costumes and Melissa Veal’s wig and make-up design. Time of day and place are beautifully established by Anne Militello’s lighting design. Harrison McEldowney’s choreography – in addition to the dance between Katherine and Henry – includes one between Henry and Anne Boleyn – an erotic moment which establishes Henry’s intense sexual attraction to Anne.

Henry VIII may be minor Shakespeare, but it’s major Chicago Shakespeare Theater work. Though less a spectacle than we frequently see on Navy Pier, it contains spectacular acting that is just a treat to behold. Ms. Gaines’ cast gives the Elizabethan language a natural feel, and the sharp, biting tone she establishes makes the play feel as pointed as a contemporary satire.

Rating: ★★★½

Henry VIII continues through June 16 at Chicago Shakespeare, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand (map), with performances xxx.  Tickets are $58-$78, and are available by phone (312-595-5600) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at More information at time: 2 hours 30 minutes, includes an intermission)

Photos by Liz Lauren




Mike Nussbaum (Duke of Suffolk), David Lively (Duke of Norfolk), Andrew Long (Duke of Buckingham, Cranmer, Ensemble ), Scott Jaeck (Cardinal Wolsey), Samuel Taylor (Thomas Cromwell, Ensemble), John Byrnes (Brandon, Bishop of Lincoln, Ensemble), Gregory Wooddell (King Henry VIII), Ora Jones (Queen Katherine), Kevin Gudahl (Surveyor to the Duke of Buckingham, Griffith, Sir Thomas More), Nathan M. Hosner (Lord Chamberlain, Ensemble), Adam Brown (Lord Sandys, Ensemble), William Dick (Sir Thomas Lovell, Ensemble), Christina Pumariega (Anne Boleyn), David Darlow (Cardinal Campeius, Ensemble), Lance Baker (Gardiner, Ensemble), Kate Buddeke (Old Lady), Alexa Ray Meyers (Patience, Ensemble), Hillary Horvath (Jane Seymour, Ensemble), Anu Bhatt, Nicholas Druzbanski, Cassandra Nelson (Ensemble).

behind the scenes

Barbara Gaines (director), James Noone (scenic design), Anne Militello (lighting design), Lindsay Jones (original music, sound design), Melissa Veal (wig and makeup design), Harrison McEldowney (choreography), Kevin Gudahl (verse coach), Bob Mason (casting), Deborah Acker (production stage manager),  Calyn P. Swain (assistant stage manager), Mariann S. Verheyen (costume design), Liz Lauren (photos).

Ora Jones, Gergory Wooddell, Scott Jaeck, David Darlow in Henry VIII at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

Ora Jones, Gregory Wooddell and Christina Pumariega in Henry VIII at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.


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Category: 2013 Reviews, Chicago Shakespeare, John Olson, Navy Pier, William Shakespeare

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