You could argue that Tina Packer’s career has been devoted to the proposition that there’s no such thing as minor or inessential Shakespeare.
So it’s not surprising that Packer has chosen to stage the rarely produced “Henry VIII,’’ nor that she takes a bold approach to the challenges presented by this disjointed drama.
The structural issues bedeviling “Henry VIII’’ are ultimately not soluble, but Packer does an artful job camouflaging the play’s shapelessness in an engrossing Actors’ Shakespeare Project production that features the charismatic Allyn Burrows in the title role. (The director, who founded Lenox-based Shakespeare & Company 35 years ago, was equally adroit at the helm of ASP’s 2012 production of another difficult play from the canon, “Troilus and Cressida.’’)
A large part of what makes “Henry VIII’’ such a vexing play is its lack of cohesion. Too many scenes have a scant relation to one another, with the focus shifting from one figure to the next while generating little of that forward-thrusting development so fundamental to both story and character.
Because of its lack of narrative momentum and general thinness of characterization, “Henry VIII’’ (believed by some scholars to be a collaboration between Shakespeare and the playwright John Fletcher) never rounds into a satisfying dramatic shape, never really amounts to much more than a procession of historical figures speaking sometimes-beautiful poetry.
Yet Packer largely succeeds in imposing a stark unity of vision on these disparate parts, forging a “Henry VIII’’ that underscores the precariousness and transience of power — and existence itself.
A large, gray, tombstone-like cross (set design is by Janie E. Howland) looms in the background, suggesting not just the religious issues that undergird the play but also the fate awaiting the characters in “Henry VIII,’’ for all their desperate scheming and speechifying.
Packer has crafted a haunting final image for the production in which Anne Boleyn makes a small gesture that evokes her own doomed trajectory. Other gestures throughout the play are more sudden and explosive, illustrating the director’s knack for visual or verbal punctuation and suggesting the unpredictability that pervades the king’s court: Henry savagely kicking the air, Anne suddenly sinking to her knees while emitting a sharp cry, the once-mighty Cardinal Wolsey being roughly pushed to the ground.
Henry is offstage for stretches of the play, but Burrows makes a vivid impression, endowing the monarch with a blend of open-faced charm and cocked-fist lethality. Anne is portrayed by Kathryn Myles, who played the resentful sister in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of Nina Raine’s “Tribes.’’ Myles wears an expression of misgiving for much of the play; her Anne is no calculating opportunist, but rather a young woman who seems to intuit that being wooed by this particular king will be a source of torment, and won’t end well.
As indeed it won’t, of course, not just for Anne (though, as mentioned, she’s still standing at play’s end) but for others who move within the orbit of the erratic and arbitrary king. They include the Duke of Buckingham (Craig Mathers, very good), undone by accusations of treason, and the scheming Wolsey, portrayed by Robert Walsh. Other powerful figures, such as Cromwell (Johnnie McQuarley) and Cranmer (Ross MacDonald), are more lucky — at least for the time being. What comic relief there is in “Henry VIII’’ comes from Bobbie Steinbach, who does yeoman’s work as the breezily confiding Fool.
The character whom the author(s) seemingly intended to engage the audience’s sympathies most fully is Queen Katherine, the wife whom Henry abruptly casts aside when he is smitten by Anne. Katherine is portrayed by Tamara Hickey, seen recently in the misbegotten “Rancho Mirage’’ at New Repertory Theatre. Hickey’s delivery is stiff at first, but her performance grows stronger as Katherine’s anguish deepens, especially in a scene when the queen passionately makes her case.
There’s little in Wolsey to earn our sympathy, yet the estimable Walsh brings a harrowing force to the churchman’s lament about what ultimately befalls “that poor man that hangs on princes’ favors,’’ including a line that could sum up the brooding aura of this production: “And when he falls/ He falls like Lucifer/ Never to hope again.’’
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.