The Public Theater’s 36-play Shakespeare Marathon that Joseph Papp started nine years ago comes to a fitting end with the play that closed the Bard’s stage career, “Henry VIII.” Rarely performed for reasons of quality (the title character is, as written, thoroughly unremarkable) and superstition (legend has it that Papp thought the play cursed since the Old Globe Theater burned down during a performance), “Henry VIII” certainly won’t convince anyone that it’s top-drawer Shakespeare, but under Mary Zimmerman’s efficient, often elegant direction the play, presented outdoors in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater, at least seems sleeker than its untidy, episodic construction would suggest.
Best known for its pomp and pageantry — the Globe blaze was ignited by the production’s use of cannonfire — “Henry VIII” here receives a streamlined staging that’s almost miraculous in untangling the convolutions of the story. Zimmerman wisely avoids the avant-garde trappings that became de rigueur for Shakespeare during the Marathon (there’s not so much as a letter of spray-painted graffiti or a video monitor in sight), and her talented cast is beautifully costumed (by Toni-Leslie James) in period garb from the play’s actual period (no East Village black, thank you).
Even Riccardo Hernandez’s set of connected archways, shrinking in perspective and painted a lush royal blue, is lovely in its classic simplicity, a graceful backdrop to the nefarious, internecine goings-on of the plot.
“Henry VIII” recounts the much-married king’s first divorce. Henry (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) wants out of his 20-year marriage to faithful, loving Katherine (Jayne Atkinson) so that he’ll be free to marry the beautiful Anne Boleyn (Marin Hinkle). He’s being goaded into the wife-switch by the deceitful Cardinal Wolsey (Josef Sommer), who has his own reasons for getting rid of Katherine.
Shakespeare (or a long-rumored ghostwriter) tosses in any number of subplots involving courtly intrigue, scheming and church-state maneuvering, the result being an often tedious (particularly in the first act) history. Worse still, the king himself is one of Shakespeare’s most lackluster heroes, always at the center of the plot but rarely, if ever, leading it. The ruthless cruelty we’ve come to associate with Henry is absent from the play, and so, for that matter, is any dimension to the character.
Santiago-Hudson, the Tony-winning actor from August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars,” uses an easy, conversational delivery that suits the ears but lacks the weight that might give this slight character some heft. Atkinson is quite powerful and poignant as the queen on her way out, and her melt-down scenes have a vividness that the play usually lacks.
Arguably the best role goes to Sommer as the duplicitous Cardinal Wolsey, and the actor gives a quietly maleficent performance that chills even on a New York summer night. Well-guided by Zimmerman to disguise the Cardinal’s evil beneath an ever-so-slightly beatific smile, Sommer convincingly hands the play to the villain.
With an ensemble that includes such Marathon alumnae as the talented Larry Bryggman, Teagle F. Bougere, John Ellison Conlee and Julio Monge, among many others, “Henry VIII” certainly isn’t the disaster that Papp, who died in 1991, feared. Surely he’d have been delighted to be proven wrong.