Ashland 3: the ‘Henry VIII’ whitewash, ‘Equivocation’ hits a home run

Queen Katherine (Vilma Silva) urges King Henry (Elijah Alexander) to cease the heavy taxations on his subjects. Photo: Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival/2009.

Above: Vilma Silva is soon-to-be-dumped Queen Katherine and Elijah Alexander is the charismatic king in “Henry VIII.” Photo: Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival/2009. Inset below: Portrait of Henry VIII by unknown artist, in the manner of Hans Holbein the Younger, ca. 1540.

I have breakfast, lunch and dinner with Henry the Eighth. Not that I let it go to my head.

A few years ago Mrs. Scatter, on one of her periodic scavenger hunts among the urban assemblages of second-hand stuff, discovered a giant street sign, weather-battered but arresting, from a British pub called the King’s Head that was part of the Vaux Brewery chain. It’s magnificent, in a run-down way. On one side, painted in the beefy commanding Holbein manner and peeling from years of exposure to wind and rain, is a portrait of Henry VIII. On the other — the side that now faces the wall — is Edward, the reluctant king who reigned over the Commonwealth for less than a year in 1936 before choosing the twice-married American socialite Wallis Simpson over the crown. Thus Vaux and the King’s Head laid claim to the two monarchs who got tangled up one way or another with divorce courts.

Now Henry eats up most of a wall in the Scatter dining room, and if guests find him threatening or domineering, they don’t mention it: no sense in ruffling the royal feathers. We call him Hank, and find him a pleasant companion on the whole. He displays a lusty appetite, which encourages good eating.

Portrait of Henry VIII by unknown artist in the manner of Hans Holbein the Younger, ca. 1540It’s almost as if we’ve turned this towering, talented, shrewd and savage leader into a pet — and so, in a way, does Shakespeare in Henry VIII, his final play. When it came to politics Shakespeare, whose company was sponsored by the king, played a necessarily careful hand (see Equivocation, below). His Henry, while hardly blame-free, is a generous-hearted fellow, good to his courtiers, solicitous of the feelings of the wife he’s dumping after 20 years, self-persuaded that his exchange of used-car Katherine for racy new convertible Anne is a matter of conscience, and painfully misled in matters of taxation and treachery by that rascal of a right-hand man, Cardinal Wolsey. In meticulously pruning the monarchial vines Shakespeare’s created a fine hearty fellow, if a little mixed-up and dense — and if there’s one thing the real Henry was not, it’s dense.

Henry VIII has some grand pageantry and good speeches and a few good character sketches, most notably of the canny schemer Wolsey and the heroically wronged Katherine, but in Shakespearean terms it’s not a very good play: too little drama, too much speechifying, too many stretches where it needs to get on with the show, and an ending — the birth in a bejeweled manger of darling little Elizabeth, hope and savior of the nation — that smacks of royal toadying to the Nth degree. So it’s a bit of a surprise that this flattering gloss of a history is this season’s best production on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival‘s outdoor Elizabethan Stage. Not the best outdoor play (Much Ado About Nothing is that, by a far shot) but the best production.

Playwright and performers vote to keep young Sharpe in the company in the world premiere of Bill Cain's "Equivocation." Photo: Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival/2009.

Above: Playwright and performers vote to keep young Sharpe in the company in the world premiere of Bill Cain’s play “Equivocation.” Inset below: Christine Albright as Shakespeare’s soliloquy-hating daughter Judith in “Equivocation.” Photos: Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival/2009.

Its appeal goes beyond the lavish pomp and ceremony of Susan E. Mickey’s sumptuous costumes and Michael Ganio’s scenic design (with lighting designer Alexander V. Nichols they create an unusually warm and sometimes even witty stage picture) to two more elementary virtues. First, director John Sipes moves the action smoothly and elegantly from scene to scene, with precious little clunking in what can be a clunky play. Second, its key performers take time to savor their roles, giving them the physical and psychological shape that so often gets blunted in the expanses of the open-air theater. Anthony Heald as Wolsey is subtle and purring and as dangerous as a caged cat. Vilma Silva as Katherine is a voice of passion and justice: still, after two decades as queen, a stranger in the strange land of the English court. And Elijah Alexander as Henry has the bluff, cheerful, charismatic, slightly spoiled edge of a champion athlete: He’s Number One, and he enjoys knowing that everyone knows it. It’d be interesting to see him playing Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Christine Albright as Judith in Equivocation. Photo: Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival/2009Did I mention that Shakespeare played it close to the vest when it came to politics? The implications of the playwright’s prudence strike Bill Cain so forcefully that they become the center of his witty, moving, and altogether marvelous new play Equivocation, which has been celebrated as the hit of the Ashland season and so far on this visit (The Servant of Two Masters will get more than a few enthusiastic votes, but it’s hidden away in the small New Theatre) seems exactly that.

This world-premiere production, directed by festival artistic director Bill Rauch, shows off how good the Oregon Shakespeare Festival can be when it’s clicking on all cylinders.  It’s why people make the trek to Ashland: For those times when it all comes together and you sit for three hours entranced, rocking in the cradle of discovery.

Cain’s six-actor drama touches on friendship, loyalty, politics, art and integrity. It deals with the vagaries and deceptions of the historical record — if the victors tell the tale, is it always wrong? — and brushes up allusively against the manipulations of recent political events (where are those weapons of mass destruction?), although drawing those parallels isn’t necessary to appreciating the script, because this play is far better than a mere metaphorical finger-wagging. Cain explores the very nature of storytelling: How do you take something true, turn it into a lie, and then transform it back into the truth in different clothes — especially when failing in the effort can cause you to literally lose your head, and get you drawn and quartered to boot? Equivocation does all of this with a stage-smart flexibility that revels in the possibilities of actorly illusion and has the bounce of expertly crafted writing: Cain strikes little matches of foreshadowing that bide their time and then go boom!

The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 — the great explosion of English history that didn’t happen, when Catholic dissidents against King James plotted to blow up Parliament but were thwarted, seemingly miraculously, in the nick of time — is at the center of the show. Today it’s remembered largely for Guy Fawkes Night, named for one of the supposed conspirators, when English kids and grownups set off fireworks and light bonfires, tossing effigies of poor hapless Guy into the flames.

But what if it didn’t happen that way? What if the whole “plot” was a government invention, dreamed up and orchestrated by the manipulative power behind the throne, Sir Robert Cecil, to finally break the back of the “old religion” by turning public sympathy against the Catholics? What if Cecil then commanded Shakespeare (or “Shag,” as he’s called here) to write a play for the king celebrating the triumph over the plotters? And what if Shakespeare discovers that the official story is a lie? How does he tell the truth without risking his life and the lives of his entire company? That’s where equivocation — the art of answering the real question beneath the false question — comes in.

Rauch has given himself the luxury of a superb cast for this show, led by Heald’s ever-seeking Shag and equalled by the men and woman of the company: Richard Elmore, Jonathan Haugen, John Tufts, Gregory Linington and Christine Albright as Shakespeare’s daughter Judith, the twin who didn’t die.

Cain knows his way around the Shakespeare canon. Equivocation reaches to Henry VIII and the beginning of England’s religious/political quandary, when Henry broke from Rome and founded his own church. We see snippets of Lear and Macbeth (the king likes witches; he wants witches in his play). And, in the touching reconciliation of Shag and Judith, Cain coaxes us forward in this grand conjecture of a play to the great, moving, later plays about fathers and daughters: Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest.

Making all of this complex history and supposition not just clear but also lively and compelling is an act of theatrical magic. Cain and Rauch and this dream cast pull it off superbly, and special note should go also to dramaturgs Lue Morgan Douthit and Barry Kraft, who had an astonishing amount of ends to amplify and keep straight. As Cecil asures Shag about his own plays, Equivocation has a future: People could be watching it 50 years from now.