In the 16th century, a bungled kidnap attempt triggers a domino cascade that nearly foils the future of the teenager princess destined to become Queen Elizabeth I. How young Bess keeps her wits, not to mention her head, will keep you on the edge of your seat in the U.S. premiere of “The Virgin Trial,” at Cygnet Theatre.
The pickle Bess (Olivia Hodson) finds herself in involves her none-too-healthy half-brother, Edward, who sits precariously on the throne; Eddie’s Lord Protector uncle who misuses his power to protect special interests of his own; and another uncle, an equal-opportunity cad, who thinks nothing of issuing simultaneous marriage proposals – to Bess, to her older half-sister and even the widow of King Henry VIII – in order to get a better seat at court.
Everyone has ambitions and everyone thinks the surest way to get what they want is to neutralize 15-year-old Bess bodily or else sully her reputation as a virgin rendering her worthless as a royal marriage prospect.
Actress Olivia Hodson turns in an utterly electrifying performance as Bess. Scene by scene, before our very eyes she transforms from a wide-eyed girl – whose feet don’t quite touch the floor as she sits awaiting interrogation – into a formidable presence. We root for Bess, but at times she’s as unnerving as Patty McCormack in the “The Bad Seed.”
As resolute as Bess is, her enemies are no pushovers starting with Eleanor (Lisel Gorell-Getz), a lady of the Tudor court who would not be out of place in the Gestapo as she wastes no time setting up a tape recorder and bombarding Bess with trick questions about her supposed culpability in the kidnap attempt on young Eddie. Finding Bess too smart to incriminate herself, Eleanor turns her ruthless attention to Bess’s governess Ashley (Monique Gaffney) and secretary Parry (Wil Bethmann), with fully realized methods of torture.
Playing the part of good cop is Lord Protector Ted (Tom Stephenson). His “tut-tut” assurance that Bess is not under arrest and can leave the foreboding Tower of London at any time fools no one.
In flashback scenes, Bess turns to her sister Princess Mary (Brittney M. Caldwell) – crabby that Bess has called her out into the rain – for level-headed and sassy blunt advice. There’s also the matter of the way-too-cozy living arrangement of Bess with Lord High Admiral Thom (Steven Lone), who did succeed after all in marrying Bess’s stepmother, the former Queen Katherine Parr. Be aware that the show’s production team includes an Intimacy Choreographer (Natalie Griffith Robichaux).
“The Virgin Trial” is a satisfying second installment in playwright Kate Hennig’s Tudor Queens Trilogy. No surprise given outstanding writing combined with the superb guidance of Rob Lutfy, who also directed last year’s buffo Cygnet production of “The Last Wife.”
Scenic designer Elizabet Puksto deftly sets the story’s tone before the first word is uttered with a stark stage dominated by a stainless-steel table that sees service as an interrogation desk, torture table and seduction bed. Tightly stretched black nylon strips strangle the upper reaches of the stage not unlike how tape from a cassette recorder in the wrong hands can be used to strangle the truth. Against this backdrop, lighting designer Chris Rynne adroitly illuminates the dark stage at just the right moment with splashes of color signifying night, dawn, a promising blue sky or an unnerving approaching storm. Sound designer Maeann Ross revs up the tension between scenes with snippets of recognizable melodies mixed with nerve-fraying white noise.
Costume designer Veronica Murphy mixes contemporary garb with the kind of lush fabrics and detailing found in the portraiture of Hans Holbein the Younger. A standout costume is Bess’s gown of orange satin with ruffles at the cuff and lace-embellished bodice. A headband that hints at a tiara, glitter sneakers with ribbon shoelaces and a touch of fur at the top of her socks are all nice touches. Symbolic of Bess’s quasi-prisoner status is a multi-strand pearl choker.
Can’t wait to see how things turn out in the final installment of this series. Meanwhile, my money is on Olivia Hodson to ascend the British throne after Elizabeth II vacates Buckingham Palace.
By Lynne Friedmann