After being out of the local theater scene for a couple of decades, the Rhode Island Shakespeare Theater (TRIST) is back, staging an outdoor production of Henry VIII at the Roger Williams National Memorial Park, on North Main Street in Providence, through June 26.
The late history play isn’t performed often, for good reason. It’s not among Shakespeare’s best-written works, which is partially attributable to it not entirely being the Bard’s work. Most scholars contend it was a collaboration with the prolific John Fletcher, who succeeded Shakespeare as principal playwright for the King’s Men theater company. Fletcher apparently inserted a lot of characteristic ye’s and thee’s and other stylistic word choices.
The hot-tempered, bloody career of King Henry VIII, with his six wives and all that, was lusty enough to provide plenty of dramatic entertainment just by a charting of his year-to-year goings-on. Unfortunately for Henry VIII the play, Shakespeare seems to be describing the history in real time for long stretches. The play doesn’t so much end as trail off, with a scene designed not for drama but for royal puckering-up, as the king and his court celebrate with unlikely exuberance the birth of a daughter rather than a son to his wife Anne Boleyn. The girl will grow up to be Shakespeare’s sovereign, Queen Elizabeth.
Although he first staged Shakespeare at TRIST nearly 40 years ago, founder and director Bob Colonna has never done Henry VIII — because, he says, he never had any good ideas about how to do so. But he finally decided, for this production, to cut characters with the ruthlessness of a battlefield general, slimming the story to 2-1/2 hours, including an intermission, and clarifying the conflicts by sticking to those of the key participants.
The central story is that of the king (a powerfully authoritative T.J. Curran) wanting to get out of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon (Linda Kamajian), who was not producing him a male heir. He wants to marry a sweet young thing in his wife’s entourage, Anne Boleyn (Bonnie Griffin). She will be replaced after the curtain falls by Jane Seymour (Erin Sheehan).
The secondary story is the campaign by Cardinal Wolsey (Tom Oakes) to curry and maintain favor with the king. His principal obstacle is the Duke of Buckingham, played with convincing spirit by Kevin Killavey. Wolsey manages to have the loyal courtier tried on trumped-up charges of treason.
Colonna’s main idea might have been that this production is an opportunity to have a gaggle of festive actors sing the novelty song “I’m Henry VIII, I Am,” which was a Number One hit by Herman’s Hermits in 1965. Good idea. Especially since Colonna encourages a jocular tone, such as with Kevin Broccoli’s Cardinal Campeggio, a Vatican emissary, maintaining a comical Italian accent, a tactic that wouldn’t succeed unless the production as a whole was light enough.
Aiding that are such touches as having inquiring courtiers of the play address Buckingham and others as a reporter with digital recorder and a photographer. (The latter, describing to someone a sequence of “strange pictures” she has seen of Wolsey’s activities, can conveniently show images on the back of her digital camera.)
Other performances that pique our interest include Kamajian as a spirited Catherine of Aragon and Carol Schlink dressed in hippie mode as Patience, an aide to her who eagerly pipes up with predictions now and then.