‘Henry VIII’ isn’t Bard’s best, but it is well done

Allyn Burrows as Henry VIII and Robert Walsh as Cardinal Wolsey in Actors Shakespeare Project's "Henry VIII." Photo: Stratton McCrady

Allyn Burrows as Henry VIII and Robert Walsh as Cardinal Wolsey in Actors Shakespeare Project’s “Henry VIII.” Photo: Stratton McCrady

BOSTON — I have been a fan of famed Shakespeare interpreter/actor/director Tina Packer since I first stumbled onto Shakespeare & Company in Lenox while vacationing in the Berkshires years ago.
She has often brought her talents to the Boston stage and she has again as the director of “Henry VIII,” now at the Modern Theatre through Jan. 5.
“Henry VIII” is rarely performed and it’s probably a reason that Actors Shakespeare Project decided to take it on for the first time, eliminating a hole in its resume.
Packer in the program noted that it’s difficult to figure out why Shakespeare wrote the play or if there is a message to be had in it, but even if it is not The Bard‘s best — and many scholars believe he co-wrote it with playwright John Fletcher — there is satisfaction to be had in the language, a production done right and done well, a fine cast, Packer’s direction and attention to detail and strong production values.
Henry is heavy with religious overtones, having to do with the monarch’s relationship with the Roman Church and subsequent break with the church.
Henry VIII, of course, married his brother’s Arthur’s widow, Katherine of Aragon, after his brother’s death at the age of 15. But by the time the play begins, Henry is keen to divorce Katherine and replace her with Anne Boleyn after Katherine fails to provide him with a male heir.
There’s just one problem — under church rules, he must get his current marriage to Katherine annulled before he can marry the fetching Anne. And that will be what stirs the pot.
The estimable cast includes ASO artistic director and founding member Allyn Burrows as a Henry who is strong, bold and calculating, and not afraid to meet his foes head-on. Robert Walsh as Cardinal Wolsey is a most slippery sort, ably double-dealing as he is saying one thing to Pope Clement when it comes to annulment of Henry’s marriage and quite another to Henry himself.
The most dramatic moment when Wolsey, whose double-dealing and stolen wealth are finally revealed– is symbolically stripped of everything: his robes, his ill-gotten gains, his power and his status in the court of Henry VIII.
There are equally harrowing scenes when Tamara Hickey as Katherine begs Henry not to go through with the divorce, and then remains faithful to him even as his disloyalty devastates her and eventually causes her death.
Kathryn Myles as Anne Boleyn seems rueful as Katherine’s downfall accompanies her elevation, and she is right to be concerned. Packer has taken some minor roles and combined them in the capable hands of Bobbie Steinbach as The Fool, who introduces the piece and hovers around the action.
There is other fine supporting work by Craig Mathers as the ill-fated Duke of Buckingham, who speaks out against Wolsey while he is still at the height of his powers, Michael Forden Walker as Norfolk, and Ross McDonald in a variety of roles.
ASP‘s production can be considered a success in that it puts “Henry VIII” in its best possible light. And less-than-perfect Shakespeare is still Shakespeare.
The Actors’ Shakespeare Project production of William Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII.” Director: Tina Packer. Associate directors, Brooke Hardman and Steven Barkhimer, Set, Janie E. Howland, Costumes, Tyler Kinney, Lights, Daniel H. Jentzen, Sound, Steven Deptula, Composer, Alexander Sovronsky, Choreography, Susan Dibble. At the Modern Theatre at Suffolk University through Jan. 5. Actorsshakespeareproject.org.