Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Review: Shakespeare’s rarely produced ‘Henry VIII’ provides great theater


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The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey premiered this past weekend the fifth of its six play main stage schedule for the 2014 season, the rarely produced "Henry VIII." The play is presented in STNJ's always impressive epic style, with sterling casting, dazzling costumes, dramatic setting, perfect mood creating music and lighting. 

Why rarely produced? It was one of the Bard's most popular plays a century ago, however the authorship of this tale of the young Henry VIII is in question.  Many Shakespeare scholars are of the opinion that the work is a collaboration between William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, a fellow dramatist.  We should note that the play's notoriety is also partly due to a tragic incident during a performance at the Globe Theatre in 1613. The theatre burned down....a cannon shot employed for special effects ignited the theatre's thatched roof, burning the  building to the ground.  None of these concerns, however, alters the fact that this reworked, streamlined version in the hands of STNJ's veteran  director Paul Mullins is a marvelous, fascinating, entertaining story. 

This is not the story of Henry VIII and his six wives, or the split with Rome creating the Church of England. The play instead is centered on Henry's desire to divorce first wife of 20 years, Katherine of Aragon, the daughter of the Spanish King. The replacement, already a member of the court, is Anne Bullen (Boleyn) Katherine's maid of honor. Henry (David Foubert) is successful in his quest for divorce from Katherine and marriage with the young Anne (Kate Wieland). Queen Anne gives birth, not to the desired son who would insure Henry's legacy, but to the girl who is to be England’s future Queen Elizabeth I. The play was written and produced shortly after the death of Elizabeth, who was Shakespeare’s patron and first performed as part of the ceremonies celebrating the marriage of Princess Elizabeth in 1613 (apparently sucking up to patrons is not a recent development).

In this production, Katherine (Jessica Wortham) does not go quietly. She does great verbal battle (in a losing cause) with both Henry's Royal advisors and one of history's master vile schemers Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop of York and Lord Chancellor (Philip Goodwin).  Wolsey who, initially is, Henry's chief advisor, commits the fatal error of going against Henry's wishes for the divorce by petitioning the Pope to rule against Henry. This act produces a rare pleased response from the former Queen.

h8 3The cast, consisting of mostly STNJ veterans, is excellent, with the three leads each having a star turn. David Foubert, impresses as the powerful monarch, blind to much of the court intrigue and outright political treachery. Philip Goodwin, a long way from his recent role in 'Our Town', dressed in his red cardinal robes dominates the stage in his every scene. His finest scene comes when Wolsey realizes that Henry has turned on him...stripped him of all his lands and possessions.  Then there is Jessica Katherine. Wortham's performance alone is worth the price of admission, She brilliantly displays the fiery anger of the faithful wife, daughter of a King, who is to be discarded for a younger, more fertile, commoner. 

The supporting cast includes:  Clark Scott Carmichael in a stand-out performance as Thomas Cranmer; Thomas Michael Hammond as the Duke of Buckingham and Griffith; Eric Hoffmann as Earl of Surrey, a STNJ treasure; Matthew Simpson as Thomas Cromwell and Cardinal Campeius; Matt Sullivan a STNJ favorite as the Duke of Norfolk; Michael Earley also a stand-out as Lord Chamberlain; Damien Baldet as the Duke of Suffolk. Blythe Coons, Joseph Hamel, Alexander Korman, Katie Wieland, and Elisabeth Willis round out the cast.

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Director Paul Mullins' artistic staff also delivered star-turns: scenic designer Charlie Calvert; costume designer Hugh Hanson; sound designer Steven L. Beckel; lighting designer Michael Giannitti; choreography Gerry McIntryre;  and production stage manager Kathy Snyder.

Reviewed by Rick Busciglio      October 18, 2014

Tickets start at $32 for regular performances. Student rush tickets for all performances are $15, available a half-hour before curtain for with a valid student ID.  Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. For tickets, call the Box Office at 973-408-5600 or visit

Top photo: David Foubert as Henry VIII and Jessica Wortham as Queen Katherine.

2nd photo: left to right: Philip Goodwin as Wolsey, Matthew Simpson as Cardinal Campeius and Jessica Wortham as Queen Katherine.

3rd photo: left to right: Michael Early, Eric Hoffmann- seated, Damien Baldet, Matt Sullivan.

Photos by © Jerry Dalia, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

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