Marriage is not to be entered into lightly when the groom is England’s King Henry VIII.
The West Coast Premiere of “The Last Wife” offers a contemporary retelling of Henry’s sixth (and final) wife, Katherine Parr, and how she strategically and significantly altered history 500 years ago for the enduring benefit of the island nation.
We meet Kate (Allison Spratt Pearce) as the Lady Latimer who is soon to become a young widow. In advance of Lord Latimer’s demise, King Henry (Manny Fernandes) has preemptively summoned Kate to court to propose marriage.
Why the rush? The none-too-healthy monarch seeks a highly educated woman to oversee the instruction of his only son Eddie (Giovanni Cozic on opening night, alternating with Bobby Chiu in other performances) and ensure the boy sits (as firmly as his delicate constitution will allow) on the throne after Henry’s death. No pushover, Kate has her own list of demands that include deciding when Henry will have access to the marriage bed and education equality for his daughters Mary (Cashae Monya) and Bess (Kylie Acuña), whose current curriculum is confined to needlework techniques.
The story’s through-line of patriarchy, sexual politics and women’s rights could easily have been ripped from today’s headlines. Allison Spratt Pearce gives a compelling performance as Kate; a woman who with steely resolve navigates the 16th century strictures imposed upon her by gender, society and a mercurial king. Fernandes, as Henry, is fully in command of a role as meaty as a Renaissance banquet. The fact that he bears a resemblance to Harvey Weinstein makes his actions – pivoting on a dime from romancing to life threatening – all the more chilling.
Adding to the tightrope tension is the palpable chemistry between Kate and Thom (Steven Lone), the king’s ambitious brother-in-law from a previous marriage, for whom Kate carries a flame before and after her royal nuptials.
As a stepmother, Kate quickly wins over Eddie and young Bess. Mary, however, has a chip on her shoulder the size of a castle drawbridge (Cashae Monya is delicious in this antagonistic role), and who can blame her? The young woman was declared a bastard and stripped of her succession rights when Henry’s discarded Mary’s mother (Catherine of Aragon). Kate makes it her business to level the playing field not only for the future Mary I and Elizabeth I, but for subsequent royal daughters.
Underscoring playwright Kate Hennig’s modern interpretation of historic facts, set designer Sean Fanning renders a grand castle hall through the of-the-moment architectural look of massive granite walls and sleek contemporary furnishings. Well done! Properties design, courtesy of Colleen E. Keith, is spot on with a hipster fully stocked bar, briefcases, clip boards and animal-skull trophies on the wall as a reminder of ever-present castle skullduggery.
Costume designs by Veronica Murphy are noteworthy extensions of each character. For example, when Kate is playing to Henry’s ego, she’s a vision in negligee-like gowns. Donning a suit jacket over her satin instantly conveys when Kate is getting down to business. Henry is attired in a suit, tie, and waistcoat, as befitting the CEO of a nation. Mary, dressed in lace of the high born, also wears a masculine long coat, black leather pants and high boots as if ready to lead a crusading army into battle.
In intimate scenes between Kate and Thom, lighting design (by Chris Rynne) imparts a black velvet caress to the stage. A deft touch by wig-and-makeup designer Peter Herman is securing Kate’s loosely upswept hair with a diamond-studded barrette. Oh, how easily a queen could lose a hair ornament or lose her head.