“Henry VIII” is one of Shakespeare’s less frequently produced plays. It actually isn’t Shakespeare’s alone, rather, it was a collaboration with John Fletcher. Here is a fun fact (thanks, Wikipedia): the original Globe Theater was burned to the ground during a performance of the play in 1613, as a result of a mishap with a cannon fired for sound effect.
The similarly displaced Baltimore Shakespeare Factory has mounted “Henry VIII” in the Great Hall of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Station North. The space is a cozy—a tall room on the church’s second floor, enjoying lots of natural light through a skylight during the matinee we attended. The arrangements are decidedly low-tech, with nary a stage light nor speaker to be found. Scenery is sparse, consisting of a few chairs, tables, and lecterns. The full weight of focus is given instead to the words and actions in the play. It’s a predictably dense script, directed with both reverence and irreverence by Jeff Miller. His Majesty is portrayed by the company’s artistic director, Sean Eustis. Script in hand, Eustis appears to have been cast as a late replacement. He clearly is familiar with the material, however, and might possibly be off book by the second weekend.
Limitations aside, this is a very fine ‘Henry VIII.’
We don’t get to meet all six of Henry’s wives here. There’s a Broadway musical and Masterpiece Theater for that. We do get Katherine, though, who’s played by the slightly differently spelled Katharine Vary. Vary has been an important actor in Baltimore for years now, and doesn’t disappoint in this production. Her character is steeped with anxiety, as her affection towards the king is unrequited. “Alas, sir, in what have I offended?” she pleads with Henry, as the evil Cardinal Wolsey plots to place her on trial. It doesn’t take long for us to meet her replacement, Anne (Emily Hoefstedder), and that’s where the trail of wives ends. Anne is thoroughly vetted for her new position, including by the Earl of Chamberlain (Frankie Marsh): “I perused her well.” The Cardinal is less enthused, calling Anne a “spleeny Lutheran.” Among this intrigue are the power-to-doom cycles enacted by some very compelling characters who live in the monarch’s orbit. The Duke of Buckingham, played by Peri Walker, has been found guilty of treason. Walker delivers a farewell address just prior to her character’s execution. “The last hour of my long, weary life has come upon me” is rendered with both fire and resignation. The Cardinal, too, gets his inevitable comeuppance, and Steven Hoochuk commands the downfall with a smile that’s wry in its toothlessness. Oz Heiligman is brilliant in an early scene as the Duke of Norfolk, gossiping and scheming with the Duke of Suffolk (Lauren Romagnano). The twelve-person cast also includes fine work by Greta Boeringer, Allison Jones, Nancy Linden, and Allie Press.
Though there’s no use of recorded sound, plenty of accompaniment exists in the form of musical support by members of the cast. Frankie Marsh’s guitar and Peri Walker’s xylophone provide both underscoring and punctuation to the proceedings, from a dance number set to Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” to the Marvin Gaye arrangement of “Heard it Thru the Grapevine.” There’s even a special ting-a-ling message to signal the start of intermission. And was that Allie Press playing the cornet?
Please support BSF in their new digs! Limitations aside, this is a very fine Henry.
Running time: Two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.
Advisory: The performance space is on the second floor, and the building has no elevator. The company does not provide printed programs, nor a scannable QR code at the venue. The program can be downloaded here.
“Henry VIII” runs through April 30, 2023 at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, 1900 Saint Paul Street, Baltimore, MD 21218. Tickets are available online. The theater does not require proof of vaccination. Face masks are “recommended” for patrons.