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Review: OSF's new 'Henry VIII' is gorgeous but underwhelming

John Sipes, who directed the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's sumptuous new "Henry VIII," says that the play brings to mind pageantry and the fall of various personages. Well, the OSF's new production of the play, which had a soggy opening Friday night in the rain at the OSF's outdoor, Elizabethan Stage, has a lot of pageantry interrupted here and there by the fall of various personages.

Fortunately, those personages are strongly portrayed by OSF veterans. Buckingham, the nobleman who runs afoul of the nefarious Cardinal Wolsey, is brought to seething life by Michael Elich. Anthony Heald's Wolsey, as the Machiavel who runs England, is the kind of smarmy villain we love to hate.

Henry's dumped, devoted wife, Katherine, gets a powerful interpretation from Vilma Silva, who plays her with a Spanish accent, reminding us that Katherine of Aragon was in fact a stranger in a strange land. Her steely self-control wavers only when, eyes flashing, she bridles at her enemy, the reptilian Wolsey, while trying to defend herself to a court in which the verdict is a foregone conclusion.

Unfortunately, strong performances are not enough to save this "Henry VIII," or probably any "Henry VIII." The play is a whiggish take on Henry's overthrow of Roman Catholicism in England, which happened a couple generations before Shakespeare's time. It portrays Henry, who in real life never abandoned Catholic sentiments, as a sort of super proto-Protestant who founded modern England.

It's a period 16th century production, with gorgeous costumes by Susan Mickey and epic music by Todd Barton. Michael Ganio's set is spare but suggests riches with its gilded edges and a lot of business with an enormous swath of rich fabric. The production is bookended in its opening and closing scenes by beautiful, carefully blocked spectacles on a grand scale.

But instead of presenting universal themes, as even such disparate political plays as "Richard II" or "Coriolanus" do, "Henry VIII" seeks to persuade us merely that the boorish Henry grew in wisdom in his 30s (a dubious premise) until he brought about English freedom by severing ties with the pope for all time. Like the late romances, the fragmented play emphasizes justice, mercy and forgiveness. But it papers over the failings of a sovereign it portrays as arbitrary and lacking in precisely those qualities.

Aside from all its apple-polishing on behalf of the Tudors, the play has dramatic problems. It is episodic, with no real plot. It is a series of masques, almost like those stations of the cross in medieval passion plays: If you know the story, here are some high points. To see "Henry VIII" on the stage feels like reading a book with chapters torn out or viewing a movie with half its scenes cut.

If you didn't know the play and left after the first act you'd tell friends it was about the fall of a guy named Buckingham. If you returned for Act 5, you would have missed the parts about Wolsey and Katherine, and you would see the authors, probably Shakespeare and John Fletcher, violate all known laws of dramaturgy by introducing a new theme and plot in the last act. Who is this guy Cranmer, anyway?

"Henry VIII" starts in disorder, and as Henry wises up, Wolsey falls, and order is imposed. Each fallen person learns something. Except Henry, who alone does not reflect on his failings. The authors stress forgiveness, perhaps because they were hoping we'd forgive Henry.

Katherine is the only character in all this who strikes us as truly Shakespearean. Silva plays her with great sympathy. Then the play asks us to forget about her and join in the feel-good goings-on around the birth of the baby Elizabeth, which Henry fathered by Anne after throwing Katherine on the ash heap.

Elijah Alexander labors mightily to give Henry some arc, giving him a fraternity boy fecklessness in Act I and a mix of gravitas and joy in Act 5. But the play never becomes Henry's, or anybody else's — it has no protagonist — and Henry's character remains opaque.

"Henry VIII" is not often produced; this is the OSF's first production in 25 years and only the fourth in 75 years. I can think of three reasons for producing it: spectacle, a few fine speeches and a commitment to doing the entire canon.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.

Queen Katherine (Vilma Silva) and King Henry VIII (Elijah Alexander) share a moment. Photo by Jenny Graham.