Chicago Theatre Review
Kate, the Queen Maker
The Last Wife – Timeline Theatre
With this current volatile, mudslinging political campaign thankfully winding down to its conclusion, among the issues voters are being faced with is gender equality. For the first time, after centuries of male leadership, this country has an opportunity finally to elect a female president. It’s historical and exciting, and it sets a long-awaited precedent, just as the election of President Obama was groundbreaking and, ultimately, provided a great period in our nation’s history.
Kate Hennig has written an exciting political play, which debuted last year at the Stratford Festival in Canada. While the story is about the only queen to outlive her royal husband, Henry VIII, the play is anachronistically set in today’s world, rather than in the time of the Tudors. The events from the era that drive the story remain the same, but the dialogue and characterizations are pointedly contemporary. This drama, which has its share of comic moments, looks and sounds like 21st century America. The production, directed with salience, style and spirit by Nick Bowling, floats through a fluid, impressionistic modern-day setting, designed by Regina Garcia. Costumed in black, white and neutral shades of beige and gray, Melissa Torchia brings an au courant look to this historical story of politics and passion.
Hennig’s Katherine Parr, the last wife of King Henry VIII, is depicted as a 16th century feminist super-heroine, a woman far ahead of her time. Kate already has a sexy, young lover in Thom (Thomas Seymour), as well as a title that comes with a dying husband. But Henry finds her beautiful, fascinating and is lured by her intelligence and her strength. Kate reluctantly agrees to the union under the condition that she becomes responsible, not only for educating the King’s young son Edward, who’s heir to the throne, but also his two daughters, Mary and Bess (who will eventually be known as Bloody Mary and Elizabeth I). As Henry’s new consort, Kate begins a kind of “school for queens,” opening the door for all future female rulers in England. By persuading her husband to pass the Third Succession Act, she ensures that his daughters will be in line for the throne, should anything happen to Edward. She also takes control of the country when Henry is off waging war in France. And in the bedroom the outspoken queen runs the show, both with Henry and Thom.
As Kate, strong and statuesque Anji White, last seen on this stage in her brilliant, Jeff-nominated role in “Sunset Baby,” rules with a forceful hand. This actress was born to play a ruler and, in this role, Ms. White is as commanding and conniving as necessary. Whether setting the terms for her union with Henry, managing the education of her three very different children or scheming to save her neck from the chopping block, Anji White is simply unforgettable.
Equally unforgettable is Chicago theatre veteran Steve Pickering as Henry. Raging all over the theatre, like the bombastic bull that history has painted him to be, this superb actor creates a monarch who’s every bit in charge. His Henry knows precisely what he wants and is confident in how to achieve it. That he finally, after five previous wives, has a consort who’s his equal and upon whom whom he can depend, is an achievement for which the king often congratulates himself. But, despite all his bite and bluster, Mr. Pickering finds those select, quiet moments that reveal a man of power who’s human and sometimes doubts his choices. In short, Henry needs the help of this wife, his last wife. Pickering’s performance is the stuff for which awards and accolades are created.
Handsome, versatile young actor Nate Santana, so excellent in productions like “The Rainmaker,” “Balm in Gilead” and “Marvin’s Room,” leaves his mark as Thom. Sensual, humane, mildly ambitious, Santana’s Thomas Seymour is as comfortable playing sultry bedroom scenes opposite Kate as he is rolling around the floor in a tickle match with little Edward. He makes the perfect foil for Henry, as well, although Thom often has to be reminded by the ruler that he’s the king.
Paola Sanchez Abreu is a breath of spicy passion and pluck as Mary. She brings the required sharpness, strength and sass to the role of daughter who’s lost her mother to the chopping block and, for years, has been completely ignored by her father. Although Kate works hard to rectify the situation, years of bitter neglect have taken their toll. Young Peyton Shaffer, a veteran of so many musicals at both Drury Lane and Paramount, plays tween-aged Bess with an intelligence and honesty that’s endearing and refreshing. She alternates this role with Caroline Heffernan, another excellent young area actress, seen in so many excellent productions. And Chinguun Sergelen is earnest and sweetly boyish as Eddie, the Crown Prince. He also shares his role with another youthful Chicago veteran of many fine productions, Matthew Abraham.
With Hillary Clinton poised to possibly become this country’s first female president, Kate Hennig’s Chicago premiere seems especially timely. Produced as a contemporary drama, without a hint of British dialect or an Elizabethan ruff or farthingale, this production truly speaks to today’s audiences. Ms. Hennig is currently at work on two companion pieces, all part of her “Queenmaker Trilogy,” and, based upon this exciting work, we eagerly anticipate their Chicago debuts. Nick Bowling, who’s proven himself to be one of Chicago’s finest directors, has staged this thrilling drama with the immediacy of today’s headlines, while always keeping its historical importance at the forefront. With a stellar cast bringing this story to life, TimeLine’s 20th season is off to an impressive beginning.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 21-December 18 by TimeLine Theatre Company, 615 W. Wellington Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 773-281-8463 or by going to www.timelinetheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.