at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
A better title of this production of the seldom-produced Henry VIII would be The Vilma and Tony Show. The performances of Vilma Silva (Queen Katherine) and Anthony Heald (Cardinal Wolsey) alone are enough to make this an extremely satisfying evening of theater.
This play is looked down on as odd -- if not downright "bad". The Oregon Shakespeare Festival avoids it, having last put in on 25 years ago in 1984. The audience was littered with people who are seeing Henry VIII to complete their viewing of the Shakespeare canon.
And, the plot truly is not satisfying. There's little sense of character development (despite the stated change in attitude of Wolsey). The story of Henry's reign is abandoned way before his death. And, the resolutions that do come in this putative "history" are deus ex machina spoken completions to the storyline. These text-based miracles are common in Shakespeare's light-hearted comedies, but they are unwelcomed by the audiences attending more serious fare.
Enough bitching, already!
Shakespeare may have stinted on linear plot development, but he spent extra energy in crafting elegant pageant scenes and providing eloquent monologues for the protagonists.
Vilma Silva as the pure, but soon-to-be-divorced, first wife of Henry, owns the stage. Her costumes are exquisite: rich and regal and right. Her emotions, anger, word choice, and expressions absorbed the attention of every person in the theater. During her speeches of outrage and defiance, the outdoor venue was completely still except for Silva's voice and movement. When she left the stage after refusing to participate in a sham trial of her marriage, the audience applauded like partisans at a rally.
Her antagonist, Anthony Heald's Cardinal Wolsey, is straight-up, low-key, mundane evilness. Complete, believable, rationalizing, conniving, logical Evil. An Evil so smooth and polished that its self-centered meanness is completely recognizable 400 years after the scenes were written. Heald's Wolsey would be comfortable in front of a bank of microphones at a 2009 press conference. He is unflappable and has no hesitation as he reweaves facts into a storyline that furthers his goals. I thought of Dick Chaney puppeteering the Bush White House, but you can draw your own parallels from your own political perspective.
The scenes that Silva and Heald gave the audience by themselves justified the evening out. Powerful, intense, real, and nuanced. "Wow"-producing.
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The performances of Silva and Heald made this evening of low expectations a happy night. They delivered one master-class vignette after another until too soon Henry VIII was done.