American Reporter, June 27, 1997

Shakespeare's Executioner Got the Wrong Man
by Lucy Komisar

"Henry VIII." Written by William Shakespeare. Directed by Mary Zimmerman. Starring Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Jayne Atkinson, Josef Sommer, Larry Bryggman, Herb Foster, Marin Hinkle, Michael Stuhlbarg, Adam Dannheisser, Julio Monge, Peter Jay Fernandez, Daniel Sunjata, Stephen Kunken, Julia Gibson, Sybyl Walker, Bette Henritze, Teagle F. Bougere, Mark Hammer, John Ellison Conlee, Tom Aulino, Julia McIlvaine, Mark Hanuner. New York: Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival at the Delacourte Theater, Central Park at 81st Street (212)-539-8750.

If William Shakespeare had seen this production of his play, he might have rewritten it to have Henry VIII, instead of the Duke of Buckingham, beheaded early in Act I on grounds that Henry is an impostor.

That is because Larry Bryggman, who plays the duke, is aristocratic to his bones, while Ruben Santiago-Hudson plays the king as if he were a street hustler. His voice, accent and cadences, his body language, look and mannerisms are all so jarring that they ruin the play. What in the world was director Mary Zimmerman thinking of?

This, the last of Shakespeare's plays, and one which scholars think may have been written all or in part by a collaborator, tells the story of Henry's decision to divorce his wife Katherine (the Spanish Catherine of Aragon) so he can marry Anne Boleyn, the queen's young lady-in-waiting. This takes place against the backdrop of court scheming, most of it provoked by the duplicitous Cardinal Wolsey.

The play is largely famous for being the cause of a disaster: at a 1613 performance, a shot fired to announce Henry's entrance ignited the thatched roof of the Globe Theater, and it burned to the ground. New York Public Theater's founder, the late Joseph Papp, is said to have never put the work on because he feared it was cursed. He may have been right: this dreadful production is a sad way to end his 10-year marathon of all of Shakespeare's 37 plays.

The play lacks the kind of dramatic action that fills other Shakespearean dramas; there are no grand battles or suspenseful murder plots. Instead, it is very talky-- all the more reason to have actors speak the author's poetic lines with subtlety and meaning. But when Santiago-Hudson takes the stage and stomps around, mouthing his lines rapidly and without differentiation, I want to say to him, as Stanislavsky did to poor actors under his direction, "I don't believe you."

Non-traditional casting is a good thing, but the point should be that the color of the actor's skin is irrelevant, not that someone plays a British monarch with a rasping voice and an accent that sounds like Jesse Jackson-- not unless the setting is changed and everyone else in the play does the same.

But in this case, the other main characters speak and act in the traditional Shakespearean mode. And some of them are very good at it. Wolsey's character is brought to life so coolly and convincingly by Josef Sommer in his long red velvet robe and skull cap, that you want to cheer when the despicable man gets his just desserts.

Jayne Atkinson as Queen Katherine is properly regal and despairing as the discarded wife, pleading to her husband, raging at the cardinals. Bryggman's Buckingham is powerful and emotional; his movements and presence bespeak a noble nature. Herb Foster as Lord Chamberlain speaks quietly but with authority and is also to the manor born.

When Henry was offstage, the audience could enjoy the fine performances of some of the supporting actors: Julia Gibson and Sybyl Walker as two gossipy gentlewomen rehashing the goings-on with gusto; Bette Henritze as the old biddy who cackles enchantingly (Ms. Henritze, I believe you); and John Ellison Conlee and Tom Aulino, as gatekeepers charged with keeping the rabble out of the palace courtyard during the christening of Boleyn's daughter, Elizabeth, and performing the Bard's typical comic interlude so delightfully that one sits back and says, "Well, finally: Shakespeare!"

But Teagle F. Bougere as Cromwell acts with such lack of vigor and assurance, he looks like a dim-witted lackey, not someone who would soon become a victorious general. Peter Jay Fernandez as the Bishop of Winchester talks through his nose in a singsong. And the Bishop of Canterbury acts as if he were Henry's suburban next-door neighbor instead of a powerful cleric.

When Buckingham dies, he is led away by a little girl with gold papier-mache wings and a brown leather suitcase. This representation of the angel of death, which you might expect on a sitcom, is absurdly silly and is unfortunately repeated to signal to Katherine her impending death.

The only real action scenes-- a masked ball, wedding, divorce hearing, and a christening, are done in such a stylized way that they lose all dramatic feeling and sense of pageantry.

The set is a long blue sloping arcade, and it's the backdrop through which characters arrive and depart-- and, in one case, mime Henry and Anne's wedding as the gentlewomen discuss it. Behind the arcade hangs a large scrim of golden cloth. Zimmerman says this represents the passage of time.

Indeed, the color darkens as the play goes on. But this play needed all the help it could get, and symbolic visuals are a poor replacement for inventive scenery. The costumes, at least, were charming and sophisticated.

This production of Henry VIII achieves the dubious distinction of making Shakespeare tedious. The play opened June 26 and continues through July 9.

Newsday, June 27, 1997.

An Expertly Directed Shakespeare Finale
by Linda Winer

HENRY VIII. Final play of Shakespeare Marathon, directed by Mary Zimmerman. With Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Josef Sommer, Jayne Atkinson, Marin Hinkle, Larry Bryggman. Set by Riccardo Hernandez, costumes by Toni-Leslie James, lights by Michael Chybowski. New York Shakespeare Festival, free at the Delacorte Theater, Central Park, through July 9. Seen at Sunday's preview.

Sunday will mark the 384th anniversary of the historic day when fire from an onstage cannon in "Henry VIII," demolished Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. Last night at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, much of that same play officially opened the final episode of the 36-part marathon that Joseph Papp began 10 years ago as a crafty attention-getting device.

Lest there were not enough sense of occasion at the intersection of such major cadences, this also happens to be the New York Shakespeare Festival's first-ever production of what's generally believed to be the master's last play (even if he did probably write it with John Fletcher).

In fact, the rarely seen "Henry VIII" turns out to be a remarkably fitting occasion piece. As a drama, this last of the English history plays has more plot than poetry, more pomp than genuine circumstance. As psychology, it is laughable with unlikely death-bed conversions and bogus forgiveness. As history, it's a whitewash of the brutal relatives of Elizabeth I, Shakespeare's patron, who is born at the end of the play and christened in a ridiculously florid tribute to the Renaissance she would soon oversee.

Yet the evening is one of the more memorable in a series of-- to be gentle about it-- variable results. Much credit should be lavished on Mary Zimmerman, the talented Chicago-based director known here only through her own plays, "Arabian Nights"; and "The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci." Except for a child angel (a pale-gold Julia McIlvaine) who appears periodically carrying an annoying modern suitcase, this is a gimmick-free production with a lovely sense of visual spaciousness and a straightforward clarity about the far-from-lucid text. Formal but seldom stiff, ornately dressed (complete with tights and rakish feathers) yet simply designed, the production moves with an appreciation of emotional content beyond the pageant.

She also has a large cast that, for the most part, handles the unusually ungainly mouthfuls (you try "abject object") as if the words have meaning-- a practice not as common as you might expect. Ruben Santiago-Hudson, as King Henry, does not get a chance to show much of the flair that won him a Tony Award last year for "Seven Guitars." This Henry-- famous for six wives and at least two beheadings-- is shown here only through wife No. 2, and Shakespeare, apparently trying to make him benign, only succeeds in making him dull and/or impossible to read.

Still, Santiago-Hudson keeps his dignity in a costume that tends to make him waddle like a Tudor tea cozy and offers capable serious support to the machinations at large. The real sparks come with Jayne Atkinson and Josef Sommer, who are splendid as those bitter adversaries, Henry's first wife, Katherine, and the greedy Cardinal Wolsey. Atkinson, so compelling this season as the demon in "The Skriker," has formidable toughness and poignancy as the isolated Spanish Catholic woman who, after 20 years of marriage and no male heirs, is dumped for her lady-in-waiting Anne Boleyn (played with erotic innocence by Marin Hinkle).

Sommer's Cardinal has the pink well-kept face and unctuous confidence of the terminally ambitious. Although probably no actor can totally pull off the character's abrupt change from "butcher's cur" to holy penitent, Sommer makes us think it just might be possible. Larry Bryggman makes the most out of one of the play's few big scenes: Buckingham's speeches of forgiveness before being executed for treason-- while that delightful pro, Bette Henritz, manages to turn the tiny role of Anne's aged friend into a star cameo.

Toni-Leslie James' costumes are seriously ornate and tasteful, standing in intricate relief against the peacock blue arches and conspiracy-perfect columns by Riccardo Hernandez. Shakespeare gives us lots of unworkable plot, political gossip, ecclesiastical intrigue leading to the Protestant Reformation. He originally named the play "All Is True." We'd like to think he was smiling when he thought that one up. The truth, for a change, is in the staging.

Copyright 1997, Newsday Inc.

The Hollywood Reporter, June 27, 1997

"'Henry VIII' Delacorte Theatre, Central Park, New York,
Through July 9"

by Frank Scheck

The New York Shakespeare Festival's Shakespeare Marathon, begun 10 years ago by the late Joseph Papp, ends not with a bang but a whimper with this production of the Bard's rarely produced historical drama. Faithfully and traditionally staged, it is a solid, well-acted rendition of one of Shakespeare's more difficult and less powerful works and marks the belated end of a noble project that was clearly a labor of love for its founder.

"Henry VIII" is perhaps best known for being the play that brought about the destruction of the original Globe Theatre, when an errant cannon discharge set the place on fire. No such fireworks took place at the Delacorte, but the play received an uncommonly coherent and cohesive reading.

The production was staged by Mary Zimmerman, a Chicago-based director known for such stylized avant-garde productions as "Arabian Nights," "The Odyssey" and "The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci." So it's all the more striking that she should deliver such a traditional rendition. Considering how rarely the play is seen, however, it was clearly the right choice.

"Henry VIII" concentrates on a relatively limited portion of its subject's life, principally his decision to divorce Catherine (here called Katherine) to marry Anne Boleyn, the fall from grace of Cardinal Wolsey, and Henry's transformation of England from a Catholic to a Protestant country. Heavy on historical pageantry and light on plot, it is a difficult and static work that nonetheless contains moments of great poetry and beauty.

Although Zimmerman's staging lacks any particular fire or distinctive point of view, she does a good job of presenting the play in a clear fashion and manages to project the pageantry in a skillful manner (although we could have done with one fewer court dance).

She has elicited many fine performances from a cast of Shakespeare Festival stalwarts. Particularly noteworthy are Jayne Atkinson, who brings a moving dignity and poignance to Katherine; and Josef Sommer, who gives a highly sympathetic and dignified reading as the scheming Wolsey. Ruben Santiago-Hudson, a Tony winner for his performance in "Seven Guitars," is properly stoic and kingly as Henry, but the underwritten and fairly colorless part gives him little chance to shine. Perhaps a more quirky performer of the Christopher Walken variety might have been a better choice to give the production a little juice.

The supporting roles are uncommonly well-filled, with excellent work coming from Herb Foster, Larry Bryggman, Marin Hinkle and Bette Henritze, among others.

Riccardo Hernandez's simple and striking set design is dominated by a large banner that the director informs us is meant to be a metaphor for "the invisible force" manipulating the characters. But it mainly looks like a banner.

Copyright 1997 BPI Communications, Inc.