“The Last Wife” by Kate Hennig at the Cygnet Theatre plays out as a sleek and contemporary portrait of the power and politics of love, marriage, and survival. After all, a woman who can survive marriage to Henry the Eighth is a woman who can do anything.
Set in a modern and upper class dwelling, it’s easy to forget that these monarchs in modern dress are not from the newest adaption of a Shakespeare piece with modern language. Certainly, the stakes here are the same as any of Shakespeare’s bloodiest stories. After all, this is Henry the Eighth we are talking about. Of his six wives, Katherine Parr is the one who holds the title distinction of being his “last wife”.
Parr, is really the only wife that really was able to manage dear King Henry, and even that was due to her intelligence, resilience, and some luck. Though she was only married to him for four short years, she is the reason that his daughters Mary and Elizabeth were reinstated into the succession, she acted on Henry’s direction to rule as Regent while Henry was in France on a military campaign, and was able to reconcile with Henry after he had drawn up a warrant for her arrest (this alone is remarkable for anyone during his reign).
It is these aspects; her intelligence, her desire to be involved in the educations and futures of two future Queens, and her ability to manage and survive an unpredictable and aging Henry that shape the narrative of this piece. Considering the inequity of anyone facing Henry, let alone a spouse (probably the most dangerous job in the land at that time) it approaches her actions as a quiet revolution that was laying the fertile ground for the formidable Queens of England yet to come.
The approach means the play becomes part historical, part fantasy, and part feminist revisionism to explore the power dynamics of this power couple.
Allison Spratt Pearce plays Katherine with a quiet strength and a keen understanding that since she has to play the game, she might as well get something out of it. Her Katherine, or “Parr” as she directs Henry to call her, is clever. She defines how her relationship with Henry goes, from the jewelry he gives her to when he is welcome in her bed. Her desire to nurture and educate his kids is real, as is her love for them. Pearce makes clear that Katherine’s strength is knowing when she can be soft and when to use steel, even when it may go against her normal instincts.
King Henry played by Manny Fernandes, manages to make Henry amiable, at times compassionate, even romantic and charmingly self-aware of his faults (as much as a ruler would admit them). Which is an excellent counterpoint, and all the more shocking when his fits of anger and dangerous mood swings appear when he feels he is vulnerable in some way.
Pearce and Fernandes make Henry and Katherine a much more dangerous version of Beatrice and Benedict from “Much Ado About Nothing” in their banter and dialogue. Henry may have met his match in Katherine, if only in so far that she can sometimes maneuver him to get what she wants. Yet, Katherine is very aware that this is a game where the odds of her winning (surviving) is slim to none.
Steven Lone, as Thom Seymour, Katherine’s love prior to her marriage to Henry, and also the uncle to heir to the throne Edward, is a handsome, sexy, and shrewd nobleman. His love for Katherine may be real, but so is his desire to make the Seymour name carry more weight throughout the country.
Cashae Monya as Mary is bitingly funny, cynical, and mad about her how she and her mother were treated. Though she gives Mary a hard edge, she still makes her more likeable than the real Mary.
Kylie Acuña plays Elizabeth, Bess in this, as the love deprived preteen who takes to her new stepmother, her education, and flirting coquettishly with Thom, like a duck to water. She is not the infamous Queen she will yet become, but you can see those seeds get planted during this time frame.
Giovanni Cozic plays young Edward (a role shared with Bobby Chiu) with a nice seriousness and excellent stage presence.
With Direction by Rob Lufty this play keeps the audience focused on the power, the politics, and the dialogue between Henry and Parr front and center. All of this plays out on an elegant and spare set designed by Sean Fanning, enhanced by costumes by Vernoica Murphy, lighting by Chris Rynne, and sound design by Kevin Anthenill.
The difficulty in a historical play is that there are moments that may feel like a last moment plot twist, but that’s not the playwright, that’s just history.
It seems fitting in this current day to have a show about an intelligent woman who tries to make it possible to shift the power of the patriarchy to make a difference. It just shows that no matter what age it is, a determined woman can influence a lot of change.
“The Last Wife” is playing at Cygnet Theatre through February 11th. For tickets and show times go to www.cygnettheatre.com