For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
— Genesis 3:1-5
"Son!" cried the weeping sire, "the wish forego,
To learn what late must whelm thy house in woe.
Him shall the jealous Fates but show to earth:
A short bright flash between decease and birth.
Too high, ye Gods! our Roman power had grown,
Had this your precious gift been all our own.
— Aeneid, Book VI
Creation stories require gods. We might not call them that all the time; sometimes they are “Founding Fathers” or “the Party” for instance. Deified and rarified, but not fully divine. The House of Tudor in some way are the Olympian gods of modern western culture. Henry VIII separated from the Pope (overthrowing the Titans if you’ll allow me the parallel) and then went on, in a very Zeus-like fashion, having sex with anyone who turned his head.
You’ll be shocked to learn that tragedy and death followed suit, as they tend to do—though on the upside no one was turned into a cow, like Io. Fort Worth’s Stolen Shakespeare Guild is currently producing two of these origin myths in repertoire that are based around the same historical characters: William Shakespeare’s Henry VIII and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. This is a fascinating approach. It allows for an interesting sense of meta-theater, in that you are seeing the same characters navigating many of the same historical events, but in a completely different tone and approach to character development.
It is definitely worth seeing both plays for this counterpoint, however, Wolf Hall directed by Joey Folsom, is by far the better of the two productions. This is a bit surprising as I watched Henry VIII (directed by Richard Stubblefield) first and thought the cast didn’t have many Shakespeare veterans among them. But then I saw those same actors perform Wolf Hall and it seemed like an almost entirely new cast. Performing Shakespeare is obviously more difficult than a play written in modern English, with its tricky phrasing and rhythm, but one would expect a company with the name Stolen Shakespeare Guild to be able to pull it off.
There are bright spots in Henry VIII: Carter Frost is terrific as the title character. All the powerful storms and squalls of Henry’s moods are on display with deft and playful shifts. Michael Johnson gives a very layered performance, providing all the emotional resonance that comes with the manipulative Cardinal Wolsey’s rise and fall from grace. Sonia Justl’s scenes are wickedly funny; her grasp of Shakespeare’s pace and language is exquisite. And you need Terry Yates in your plays. If I was directing Hamlet, Death of a Salesman, or a car commercial, I’d want Terry Yates.
The gap between these actors and the others is too evident though. Bert Pigg is underutilized as Lord Chamberlin. Karen Matheny’s Queen Katherine is adequate, and the few lines that TJ Bowlin have are well done (more about him later). But the rest of the (sizeable) cast doesn’t fill out their roles with the type of emotive reach or mastery of the language necessary for this play. And this deep into a run (I saw both shows on Sunday of the second weekend), Andrew Manning’s several surprising line flubs threw the timing off repeatedly.
But on the flipside is Wolf Hall. This is a wonderfully realized production; credit goes to Folsom for this, and Andrew Manning is the perfect example why. His Cromwell has just the right tone, the pitch-perfect beats, wry smile and a delicate/all-knowing pauses while engaged with his interlocutors. As Henry, TJ Bowlin recreates the same unpredictability and fully realized character, but as a tragic Henry trying to hold onto power rather than Frost’s powerful Henry not recognizing his power slipping away—and they both work. Pigg delivers an incredibly empathetic Wolsey.
This is a good time to remind you that seeing both plays is still a good idea so you can the variation that only live performance allows. To have a tragic and power-mad hero that are the same man in Henry VIII, or the cunning Wolsey on one hand and the despondent Wolsey on the other, lets you see the vast expanse in representing the human condition.
To return briefly to the cast and performance of Wolf Hall, Jenna Clair’s Anne Boleyn is every bit the doyenne amour de base, using feminine wile and power to get what she wants. Matt Nugent, as Christophe, is hilarious. Marisa Duran is a bit underutilized in both plays, as her waiting lady in Henry VIII is a very funny (though brief) and her Mary Boleyn in Wolf Hall is quick-witted and manipulative. Sonia Justl’s Spanish accent and performance is again terrific.
Another shock moving from Henry VIII is the cast using accents in Wolf Hall. Nearly all of them are more than adequate at this, with Carter Frost as the stand out. This also makes the different power struggles and status among these complicated tribes more evident for the audience.
Costume designer of Lauren Morgan does an excellent job. The costumes are the same for most of the cast in each production with some minor adjustments, which makes sense from a budget perspective and doesn’t detract from the performances. Her attention to detail does much to bring the audience into the shows. The set design by Jason and Lauren Morgan is handsome, with a vaguely Tudor theme and a nice use of a raised platform extending the entire length of the stage and both surrounding the main stage and forcing the action close to the audience. At the performance reviewed, a few actors didn’t find Bryan Douglas’ light in Wolf Hall. Sound design by Jennifer Stewart and Jason Morgan is understated in Henry VIII but distracting in Wolf Hall.
As for these two vastly different productions, we share a lot of creation myths and the heroes and villains of each change depending on your personal preference. These two plays, both in their performance and in their story, give us a complementary genesis to much of the history of Western Europe. And everybody loves a good royal family/execution story, whether it’s the Tudors, the Kennedys, or the Old Testament.
Here's the schedule for the final weekend:
- 8pm, March 1: Wolf Hall
- 2pm, March 2: Henry VIII
- 8pm, March 2: Wolf Hall
- 2pm, March 3: Wolf Hall