Henry VIII Credit: Liz Lauren

Barbara Gaines is a great leader, no doubt about it. She took a little Lincoln Avenue storefront theater—not even a storefront, really, but a rooftop-patio-over-a-bar theater—and built it into a big-name, big-budget, high-prestige cultural institution with a well-earned reputation for connecting Chicago to the international theater community through its World’s Stages program, which I dearly love and sincerely respect. I think about what she’s achieved every time I walk into her wood-paneled temple to the Bard on Navy Pier, Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

But I’ve got to admit, I often find her directing hard to take.

It’s not a question of competence. Gaines knows how to entertain, and she’s especially good at glamour. Give her a royal occasion to stage and she’ll put on a full-out pageant, dripping with pomp and circumstance, golden light, confetti, and lots and lots of billowy fabric. No, the auteurist flourishes are what get me. Over the years Gaines has tried all kinds of high-concept strategies to soup up Will’s scripts, from table dancers in shiny hot pants to camo-fatigued knights toting assault weapons. These conceits hardly ever contribute much in the way of lucidity—though I suppose they make sense if you assume that, like Polonius, most of us are for a jig or a tale of bawdry or we sleep.

To be fair, Gaines is far from alone when it comes to futzing with Shakespeare. So many directors have gone the modern warfare route that I’ve found myself sitting in theaters thinking thoughts along the lines of, Oh God, not Marc Antony rappelling down from a helicopter again! And to be fairer still, the directorial impulse to destroy a slice of the canon in order to save it has been known to yield a masterpiece now and then, especially when that slice is problematic for a contemporary audience. Goodman Theatre’s Robert Falls, for instance, didn’t need to locate his 2006 King Lear in the dystopic chaos of postcommunist Eastern Europe, and the production was exactly as flawed as the concept was superfluous. On the other hand, he more recently used wildly over-the-top methods to build something brilliant from the absurdities of Measure for Measure.

If it’s true that auteurs get the best results from the weakest Shakespeare, then Gaines had a great opportunity with Henry VIII. A joint effort between the Bard and his much younger colleague John Fletcher, the play appears to have no real point other than to valorize Queen Elizabeth I, who’d been dead ten years by the time it premiered. Though her much-married daddy dominates the narrative and she appears only as a very small child in the final scene, everything in the play tends toward (a) legitimizing and (b) glorifying Elizabeth’s reign—because, after all, the circumstances that made her a monarch were awfully messy.

Henry’s older brother Arthur was next in line to become king upon the death of their father, Henry VII. But Arthur died young, and Henry inherited not only Arthur’s position but his wife, Katherine of Aragon. The pope granted them a special dispensation to wed, and they stayed together for 24 years, until Henry—now Henry VIII—got the hots for Anne Boleyn, who looked to him like she might supply the male heir he hadn’t produced with Katherine. Another dispensation was required for Henry to divorce Katherine, but this time the pope refused, so Henry started the Church of England—which, not surprisingly, gave him all the dispensations he wanted. Elizabeth was the child of Anne, whom Henry would end up divorcing with extreme prejudice, by lopping off her head.

This—from Henry’s hots to Elizabeth’s christening—is the story that’s told in Henry VIII, and Shakespeare and Fletcher have to thread a great many political and religious needles to make it come out looking even a little respectable. The main fun of the play (which, ironically enough, was originally titled All Is True) is in watching them do the necessary stitching.

They tailor this Henry according to the pattern that Shakespeare used for another of that name, Henry V: like his noble predecessor, Henry VIII is portrayed as an ingenuous soul who slowly comes into his majesty, necessarily rejecting those—including Katherine—who once guided him. The Falstaff figure of the piece is the utterly corrupt yet fiercely loyal Cardinal Wolsey, and Wolsey’s rejection at Henry’s hands occasions a series of speeches that constitute the most memorable parts of Henry VIII. As the ill-fated cardinal, Scott Jaeck makes the most of those speeches, ultimately taking them well beyond the confines of this history play into a Lear-like universe of heartbreak and transcendence. It’s a great performance.

Gaines, meanwhile, has clearly decided that it’s all about the hots. She has a cable-ready hunk in her Henry, Gregory Wooddell, but that’s just for starters. In her auteurness she also supplements the playwrights’ dramatis personae, dropping in unscripted appearances by Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, and by a mysterious young woman who seems to represent the spirit of randiness—kind of like the leering dwarf-baby in Gold Diggers of 1933, only prettier. Worst of all, she turns Katherine’s dying vision—described in the text as a beatific event—into a romantic last dance with her beloved Henry. That is to say, with the guy who so royally screwed her.

Well, there are a couple of really nice pageants.