Saturday, May 23, 2015

Review: Henry VIII

Henry VIII, by William Shakespeare, produced by Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, reviewed by Wendy Rosenfield, featuring Ian Bedford, Susan Riley Stevens, Richard B. Watson.

Review: Henry VIII

By Wendy Rosenfield

Let’s be honest: Henry VIII isn’t one of Shakespeare’s greatest works, which might be why Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival chose to make it their third “extreme Shakespeare” effort. Many scholars believe the play isn’t even entirely his, but rather the result of a collaboration between Shakespeare and his eventual King’s Men successor, John Fletcher. But, as it’s essentially an exploration of the events leading up to the birth of Shakespeare’s most important benefactor, Queen Elizabeth I--back when royal births changed the course of history--it’s certainly worth its historical weight (even if, despite its alternate title, All Is True, much is anachronistic).

Extreme Shakespeare, by PSF’s definition, signifies the Bard’s works performed in the style of his company: actors arrive with their lines (mostly) memorized, cobble together whatever costumes and set elements they find backstage, rehearse four to five days without directors or designers, and put on a show. Here, the method adds a layer of thrill to a script that, for a history, and considering this particular king’s history, contains a relatively low body count and treads lightly on its principals. The play ends with Anne Boleyn still very much in possession of her head, and almost everyone redeemed. 

There’s some overlap with last season’s extreme King John. Richard B. Watson again dons a crimson robe as a scheming Cardinal. This time, it’s Wolsey, and why not? If the red Pradas fit--and they do--wear ‘em. Susan Riley Stevens plays Queen Katherine, Henry’s first ex-wife, and again lets loose, raging in a fiery Aragonese accent. Ian Bedford, however, switches up the impact of his physical power (he’s a big guy), playing Henry as a bull in diplomacy’s china shop, clad in an-ever changing array of robes and pelts, subject to whims and passions that set everyone around him on edge.

So yes, it’s exciting to watch this production come together on the fly. But the method has pitfalls, too. A lack of preparation interrupted Watson’s performance--an otherwise excellent, serpentine portrayal of tightly-wound duplicity--as he called for his lines multiple times, diluting his speeches. In addition, one of the services a director can provide is a unifying theme, and this production tracks more like a series of powerful monologues and soliloquies, highlighting the performers at the expense of their subject.

Playing at: Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, DeSales University, 2755 Station Ave., Center Valley, Pa. Through Sun., Aug. 4. Tickets: $25 to $34. Information: 610-282-WILL or

About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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