By JEAN LOWERISON | Uptown News
Kate Hennig’s “The Virgin Trial” is a humdinger of a taut political cliffhanger based on (but at times freely deviating from) Tudor history in the time just before Elizabeth became Queen of England.
Cygnet Theatre (which last year presented “The Last Wife,” the first of a projected Hennig trilogy) presents the American premiere of the second in the series through Oct. 6. Called “The Virgin Trial,” this installment gives us the 15-year-old future Queen Elizabeth, politically wise beyond her years, waiting for her chance to take the crown. In the way are her half-brother King Edward VI and her elder half-sister Mary.
This Bess is interested in astronomy and history, and has found similar interests in admiral Thomas Seymour, brother of King Edward VI. She has, in fact, found a bit more than common interests, which has caused comment. Bess and Thom are suspected of sexual activity.
But that is not the problem here. There is word afoot that Thom has plans to assassinate his brother, and two interrogators will spend much of the play trying to get Bess to admit complicity in the plot.
The interrogators here are two: Eleanor, ramrod-straight and unsmiling (played with icy demeanor by Lisel Gorell-Getz), and Thom’s easygoing brother Ted (played with casualness, even joviality by Tom Stephenson). This all takes place between 1547 and 1549.
Elizabet Puksto’s stark set — a rectangular metal table — menacing by itself — and three straight-backed chairs on the wide stage decorated (if that’s the word) by ominous black streaks of cloth or paint — set the scene for much of Hennig’s bracingly clever but often frightening wordplay.
Bess has her defenders, notably her amusing purple-clad male secretary Parry (Wil Bethmann) and governess Ashley (Monique Gaffney), who will both speak for her and suffer for their betters when they, too, are interrogated. Bethmann’s character adds a sort of oh-golly humor, while Gaffney’s Ashley gets the job done because, well, that’s what she does best.
Bess’ older half-sister Mary (convincingly played by Brittney M. Caldwell) is actually in line for the throne (and wanted it), but this Mary has been relegated to sisterly advisor status. There are two quite charming scenes in which Mary and Bess meet at night, in the rain, to plan Bess’ next moves.
Hennig’s story is a fascinating combination of history and imagination, but mostly it’s the story of the sharp 15-year-old who gets caught in the web of deceit and how she manages to wiggle out of it.
Was Bess complicit in plans to steal the throne? Was she still a virgin by the time she ascended for her own 40-year reign? History doesn’t know, and Hennig doesn’t worry about it. She’s busy giving us a captivating portrayal of a time and place that has many contemporary parallels.
Kudos to costume designer Veronica Murphy, whose creations successfully combine looks from both 16th and 21st centuries.
Maeann Ross contributes a scary sound design, and Chris Rynne does his usual fine magic with the lighting.
“The Virgin Trial” is an unusual and quite fascinating take on the young future queen and the machinations surrounding the Tudor dynasty at the time.
I look forward to the next installment (which concentrates on Mary, and is playing right now in Stratford.)
— Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.