By Jean Lowerison
“Fighting the patriarchy since 1543,” states a poster outside Cygnet Theatre advertising its new show, “The Last Wife.”
Kate Hennig’s sprightly play (at Cygnet through Feb. 11) is nominally about Katherine Parr, the last (and spunkiest) wife of Henry VIII. She became queen almost by royal fiat and then decided that once there, she would at least try to change the job description to better suit her. There are present-day parallels to be found.
Highborn and well-educated, Kate (Allison Spratt Pearce) is in love with courtier Thom Seymour (Steven Lone) when the king (Manny Fernandes) meets and takes a fancy to her — to the extent that he sends Thom to Holland, presumably to get him out of the way.
It works, and Kate becomes queen in 1543. Henry VIII makes it clear that he wants his son Eddie to succeed him on the throne. Kate, more visionary than her husband, realizes that Henry’s daughters Mary (in her 20s) and Bess (11) are not in the official line of succession, and begins to lobby to change that. Meanwhile, she is named teacher to both Eddie (Giovanni Cozic) and Bess (Kylie Acuña). Mary (Cashae Monya) just sits around making wonderfully acerbic comments.
The play is a sort of political chess match between the rotund king (in constant pain because of a leg injury that practitioners of the time continued to bleed, rather than letting it heal) and the upstart queen, who has her own (often quite good) ideas about the monarchy. It’s a delicate balance, of course, because Henry can have Kate executed at any time, for any (or no) reason.
But she persists (Kate would have loved the women’s marches we just witnessed nationwide), and when Henry insists on going off to fight in France (to do his “man thing”), he accedes to her suggestion to name her regent, in case of his death. That will give her control of the royal purse and the power to protect Eddie, should that be necessary.
Henry makes it back from France, impressed that Kate and the girls managed to get ammunition shipped to the front without male leadership — and acknowledges that they helped win the war.
Henry likes a strong woman (or so he says), and Kate has certainly proven her value as a partner, but his jealousy hasn’t abated: he asks her about Thom’s visit before he joined the King on the battlefield (she insists it was only a political visit).
But Henry really gets ticked when she mentions something about “sharing responsibility and authority.” His man thing kicks in and it seems this (or having the effrontery to name it so baldly) may be a place too far. It’s a delicate spot for Kate, whose life is in the king’s hands.
It’s important to note that Hennig does not aim for historical accuracy here. She’s telling a modern story in modern dress, using historical figures who faced some of the same questions of authority and the rights of women we face today.
Allison Spratt Pearce (well known in these parts for terrific portrayals in the musical comedy genre) proves she is just as good when she doesn’t sing. It’s safe to say her Kate will be appreciated by all the women in the audience for her strength, humor, intelligence and determination — and also by all the men with any brains.
As Henry, Fernandes turns in another fine performance. He isn’t as portly as the original, but exhibits the same male assumptions of superiority still seen in many parts today. You have to giggle at this assertion about his philandering: “I’m capricious. That makes me a fascist, not a liberal.”
Steven Lone turns in a fine performance as Thom, the man Kate wants to marry but sets aside in favor of the king, at least for a while (Henry died in 1547; Kate survived him, married Thom and died herself in 1548). Lone exhibits the charm, flirtatiousness and allure that Kate appreciated.
Cashae Monya is a hoot as Mary, Henry’s elder daughter, in her 20s at the time of this play and weary of all the hoopla of the court. She’s a wry, acerbic counterpoint to Kylie Acuña’s younger stepsister Bess (11 at this time), who is tired of being shunted off to school and appreciates that Kate has brought her home. Acuña occasionally talks too fast, but she’s charming and likable.
Giovanni Cozic is cute as a button as king-to-be Eddie.
Director Rob Lutfy and scenic designer Sean Fanning overcome the somewhat episodic nature of the script — with many short scenes — with a simple but versatile set design that flows with the action and makes it work, aided greatly by Chris Rynne’s excellent lighting effects. Kevin Anthenill’s sound effects are equally effective.
Veronica Murphy’s costumes are excellent. Kate’s dresses are especially opulent and lovely.
Call it feminist revisionist history or just a good story, “The Last Wife” definitely offers a good night at the theater.
—Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at email@example.com.