San Diego Theater Review: THE LAST WIFE (Cygnet)

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by Milo Shapiro on January 30, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


Historical fiction can be a dicey game, let alone a modernization of historical figures. When the results are as captivating as Kate Hennig’s The Last Wife, be prepared for some stimulating theater while brushing up on your history lessons.

When speaking of British History, Katherine Parr may not be a name that leaps to the average American’s mind like Queen Victoria or King George III would, but make no mistake that this sixth and final wife of the infamous Henry VIII had a huge influence upon the monarchy; there would have been no talk of William and Kate today without her persuasive powers of this woman almost 500 years ago. Yet Hennig sees in Parr a very modern woman, dedicated to showing the value of the female mind and exercising a shocking level of control over her monarch husband — one of the great egos of all time. We’re talking about the guy who started his own religion, converting millions to it, just so he could divorce his first wife.

In this exquisite updating, Hennig makes the tone both contemporary and timeless. You know you’re not in a period piece when Henry VIII (Manny Fernandez) says, “Toodle-oo!” upon exiting and where Kate herself (Allison Spratt Pearce) wears outfits that could hold favor at a 21st-century cocktail party, but Hennig resists any temptation to reference the current day. Never once does a character look at a cell phone or even reference any topic or items that would not have existed in the 16th century, suspending time and elevating the piece to a glorious more-true-than-not melodrama. Indeed, some of the plot points, if not so verifiable, would seem almost too far-fetched for fiction: Beheaded wives, hidden affairs, exiled daughters, pleas for one’s life, power plays while the King is away — Dynasty and Melrose Place should have had such intrigue!

Fernandez is deliciously vile as the man to whom few dared say no and lived to tell about it. We feel Pearce’s tightrope as her Kate is driven to make more of the King’s daughters than he ever would while she herself runs the risk of being the next wife to die. Cashae Monya seethes as Henry’s eldest and most cunning daughter, Mary (later Mary Queen of Scots), who feels cheated of the throne solely because of her gender. Fourteen-year-old Kylie Acuña is gripping as Elizabeth, who must draw upon every resource she has, from intelligence to innocence to budding sexuality, to hold her own within this tormented family. The music of composer and sound designer Kevin Anthenill expertly raises the intrigue and suffering.

Under Rob Lutfy’s fine direction at Cygnet Theatre, feminism rings loudly throughout, although how much is realistic vs. revisionist is difficult to say. But since history can check off a number of accomplishments that Queen Katherine either masterminded or outright did herself, the interpretation feels true for this play, showing Kate as being much more than just “the one who finally survived Henry.” Even non-history buffs will find themselves caught up in this very human tale of trying to make the most of oneself under the weight of overwhelming circumstances.

photos by Daren Scott

The Last Wife
Cygnet Theatre Company
Old Town Theater, 4040 Twiggs St.
Wed & Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8;
Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on February 11, 2018
for tickets, call 619-337-1525 or visit Cygnet

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