'Tis ten to one this play can never please/ All that are here....
Those words, from the epilogue to "Henry VIII," must have occurred many times to the producers of the the Shakespeare Marathon. The marathon is Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival's most ambitious project, a decade-long effort to present all the Bard's plays in memorable productions that would affirm the festival's basic principles: "classics, American style, and the more the better."
It's at least 10 to 1 that no single evening pleased every spectator between 1987, when the marathon started with F. Murray Abraham in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and the current season, wrapping up the series with Ruben Santiago-Hudson in "Henry VIII."
Looking back on all 36 productions, only a few stand out as conspicuously excellent, and there's no question that major disappointments marred the journey. High points included the opening "Midsummer Night's Dream," given a Brazilian setting and a funky Latin beat; a postmodern "Henry IV, Parts I and II," directed by the inventive JoAnne Akalaitis, who had a troubled reign over the festival after the death of Joseph Papp, its founder; and two superb productions boosted by Christopher Walken's unique abilities, "Othello" and a stunning "Coriolanus."
Among the low points were "Julius Caesar," amazingly awful despite stars like Al Pacino and Martin Sheen, a weak "Macbeth" with the late Raul Julia, and productions that confirmed the minor reputations of second-rate plays like "Titus Andronicus" and "King John." "Henry VIII" was Shakespeare's last play, but that's the only reason it makes a fitting conclusion for the marathon. A straightforward history drama, it chronicles Henry's conflict with power-hungry Cardinal Wolsey, courtship of young Anne Boleyn, and treachery toward Queen Catherine, whose sin was to give him no male heir.
The best that can be said for the play is that it strikes a telling balance between the personal and political issues woven through its plot. In other ways it's workmanlike but unexciting, with little of the exalted poetry and compelling psychology that distinguish the Bard's best works.
As current festival chief George C. Wolfe noted, a trend in the marathon's evolution has been a shift from star-driven productions to showcases for gifted young directors.
"Henry VIII" continues this tendency. It boasts no major names in its cast, although top-ranking theater veterans like Larry Bryggman and Josef Sommer turn in top-quality performances as Buckingham and Wolsey, respectively. It was directed by Mary Zimmerman, an eclectic talent with a good eye for pictorial values on the Delacorte Theater's outdoor stage.
In all, "Henry VIII" is a respectable show but hardly the thrilling capstone a 10-year marathon should have. The energy of the series seemed to dwindle after Papp's death, and it's probably just as well that the 36th production is out of the way so the festival's leaders can concentrate on projects that really interest them.
Next up in Central Park: "On the Town," the Leonard Bernstein musical with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green plus Eliot Feld's choreography, all directed by Wolfe himself. Toes are already tapping.
* 'Henry VIII' continues at the Delacorte through July 9. 'On the Town' will run from July 31 through Aug. 31.