ASP’s ‘Henry VIII’ Brings The Bard To the Masses (5 Stars)
by Paul Meekin
Henry VIII – Written by William Shakespeare; Directed by Tina Packer; Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project at The Modern Theatre at Suffolk University, 525 Washington St, Boston, MA through January 5th.
For populists like myself, who happily soak up pop-rock, reality TV, AMC dramas about drug dealers, and have no problem admitting that their favorite show on TV right now is a tie between ‘Agents of Shield’ and ‘Shark Tank’, approaching the work of William Shakespeare is much like stepping away from your favorite singles bar to ask out that Harvard-grad corporate defense lawyer with legs for miles that you keep running into at the Au Bon Pain down the street.
What I mean is, much like a beautiful, successful, woman, Shakespeare is intimidating and it’s the first step that’s the most terrifying to take; saying hello, buying tickets…looking up the definition of iambic pentameter, whatever.
So Thank God for the wingman that is the generous folks at Actors’ Shakespeare project for showing me that behind Mr. Shakespeare’s incredible legs, million dollar smile, fancy business suit, and law degree, lies an actual person that’s quite frankly wonderful and a little more accessible than you would think.
The play, ‘King Henry VIII’, tackles the politics of pre-Victorian era England, specifically as King Henry contends with the church over a divorce, and a variety of other vignettes that ultimately conclude with the baptism of the future Queen Elizabeth, and a neat little bit of legacy foreshadowing that I don’t dare ruin here.
In case you don’t know anything about Shakespeare beyond ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and the fact you’re not supposed to say ‘Hamlet’ before a play, the thing that makes him so intimidating is the way in which his centuries old plays are written. They utilize a stylized tense and verse that communicates almost exclusively in metaphor, which on paper is great – it’s masterful that Shakespeare wrote these plays this way, stressing and unstressing the proper syllables to create a rhythm that is essentially song without the music…until you realize most of these words and the countless slang terms come from the 16th century. It may technically be English, but 2013 America and 1500s England are not the same language.
But if the test of music is that you notice the silence, and the test of film and television is that you can mute it and understand what’s being communicated, the test of live, theatrical performance should be that even if the actors were speaking Esperanto, you should understand them – their pain, their hubris, their joy, and their folly.
And boy-oh-boy do you ever. The entire cast owns this material, and thanks to the tricky dialogue, you really come to appreciate them more. At the risk of comparing actors to other actors, if you allow your mind to wander, you’ll get vibes ranging from James Cameron to Christopher Plummer to Kenan Thompson to Rhea Perlman from the main cast. This is an acting troupe dedicated to Shakespeare, and it shows. Through pantomime, cadence, and emotion, you ‘get’ it in a way high-school Language Arts teachers could only dream of achieving.
There are two scenes involving The Queen – played by the Julianne Moore-esque Tamara Hickey toward the end of the first half. The delivery is so powerful and emotion-driven that you not only understand every single thing she says, you get an entirely new appreciation for the kinds of horrible stuff women had to go through at the time. That Ms. Hickey does those same two scenes multiple times a week AND there’s absolutely zero room for extemporizing because the play is written in such a specific way is wild.
Ultimately I want you to view this review, not as a critique, but instead as me holding open a door, frantically pointing inside as if to say ‘you gotta check this out!’. Yes, The language can be tricky to untrained ears (mine included), but as the play goes on, you pick up little lines, asides, and passages that really hit home with their (literally) timeless poignancy.
So, from a guy who didn’t ‘get it’ let me say with my entire heart that you ougttta check out Shakespeare. In fact, check out THIS kind of Shakespeare, put on by THIS company, which includes step dancing and a bit of audience interaction, because I’ll tell ya, while the language, times, and ways we get our narrative entertainment have changed, the chills down your spine and occasional goosebumps on your arms are as timeless as ever. For more info, go to: http://www.actorsshakespeareproject.org/henryviii