Critics of Shakespeare's antagonistic or feeble portrayal of women would do well to dig into one of the Bard's deepest cuts, a collaboration with John Fletcher not seen on a professional Chicago stage in its 400 year existence prior to this current production, helmed by Chicago Shakespeare Theater artistic director Barbara Gaines. Sure, the show's notorious namesake is known today for his habit of bedding and beheading his wives, but Shakespeare's history is set long before the king's more indulgent and bloody fat-Brando years. It centers instead on political colluding and ambition within the Roman Catholic Church and Katherine (Ora Jones) and Anne Boleyn (Christina Pumariega), queens one and two.
The self-serving manipulation by Lord Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Scott Jaeck) of Henry (Gregory Wooddell, playing a convincing mix of primal craving and naiveté) consumes much of Henry VIII's wide-sweeping plot, though the story's heart lies with the innocent women caught at the center of the storm.
The always compelling Jones wields an incomparable and righteous sneer as Katherine, who seems to mock her accusers when she identifies herself as a "simple woman" who refuses to be usurped by some little pisher who catches her husband's eye. Gaines's visually modest production—scenic designer James Noone mostly relies on conservative but occasionally enchanting draperies—preserves history as the focal point, largely unadorned with the kind of anachronistic commentary present in this season's Julius Caesar. The Tudors, it seems, have little difficulty speaking for themselves.