By Kate Hennig
Directed by Alan Dilworth
At the Studio Theatre. Till September 30, 2017
Where Kate Hennig’s The Last Wife presented Katherine Parr as a feminist heroine, her sequel, The Virgin Trial, has no heroine of comparable gravitas. Set in 1549, the sequel sometimes plays like English History for Dummies. It isn’t that Hennig is a bad playwright; it is simply that she over-estimates the power and scope of vulgarizing English history in the cause of popular understanding. Hennig is a wonderful actress; as playwright, she shows a keen theatrical sense but a shallow sense of drama and characterization. The Virgin Trial starts with offstage drama: Thom (Brad Hodder, in black beard and leather as Lord Admiral Thomas Seymour) has invaded the bed-chamber of boy-king Edward VI, possibly because of resentment of the power and authority of his brother Ted (Edward, Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector). The only historical fatality is the royal spaniel, but things get very dicey, indeed, for Thom, who is also suspected of carnal relations with young Bess (the future Elizabeth I). He is led to the executioner’s block, while Bess herself faces interrogation because she is suspected of motivating and aiding his treason. The bulk of the play consists of flashbacks to earlier events, and much is made of young Bess’s skill in dealing with her antagonists. She is supposed to be a real heroine, but in Bahia Watson’s trite performance, she never grows beyond shrill teenage petulance and verbal bravado, despite the character’s bold declaration that she is fire and radiation.
Apart from the death of the royal spaniel, there is another fatality: the grain and texture of the script itself. Colloquial and demotic in the extreme, Hennig’s characters commit anachronisms with casual abandon. There are references to Belgian chocolates, bank statements, waterboarding, and electric shock torture—none of which helps illuminate the action. Young Bess’s half-sister Mary (Sara Farb, as Elizabethan Goth as all get out) anticipates the novels of John Braine with nice modern irony in an exchange with Bess: “Welcome to life at the top.” She also cautions Bess: “Don’t fuck it up!” sounding like an English forerunner of Trump henchman Anthony Scaramucci. In a later scene, Bloody Mary observes with remarkable (21st century) perspicacity: “People do weird shit.” Indeed, but not, it seems, as weird as the shit of some theatre professionals.
Alan Dilworth has tried to make the action taut and thrilling with a staccato dramatic rhythm, and there are moments of genuine tension and suspense. His designers (Yannik Larivee for set, Kimberly Purtell for lighting) achieve some remarkable effects with tall plastic sheets and top lighting, while Alexander MacSween’s sound design is also effective. The criss-crossing of past and present sometimes robs the drama of coherence, and the characterizations are not full-scale. Yet, there are some vivid character sketches. Yanna McIntosh’s Eleanor is a venomous henchwoman for Ted, while he (in Nigel Bennett’s performance) is a cool, subtle, and authoritative. Also good (in more limited ways) are Laura Condlln as Ashley and Andre Morin as Parry, Bess’s loyalists and victims of the Lord Protector. But having a Bess who is little more than an average 21st century teenager with no tangible connection to English royal history is a real drag, to echo Mary.