Politics, Not Theater, Fuels Cygnet’s So-So ‘Last Wife’

San Diego police estimate that 37,000 women, men and children of several cultures attended the second local Women’s March downtown on Saturday, Jan. 20, with some events extending into a second day amid popular demand.

Los Angeles officials said about 600,000 gathered in that city, joining hundreds of thousands more worldwide who addressed issues ranging from sexual harassment to voter registration to equal pay.

Katherine Parr’s (Allison Spratt Pearce) smile reflects warmth and confidence, two things Henry VIII (Manny Fernandes) doesn’t understand. Photos by Daren Scott.

If King Henry VIII were around today, he probably would have thought the rallies were held in his honor. Like a certain burnt orange head of state, Hank suffered from a narcissism so troubling that the prospect of alternative behavior likely disoriented him. Cygnet Theatre’s current The Last Wife is the case in point here — Katherine Parr, not only Henry’s sixth and last wife but the only one to outlive him, would prove anathema amid her dogged early defense of women’s rights and education, even as her crazy husband could order her execution at any moment.

Consequently, this show gets ahead of itself, sometimes irredeemably so. In Katherine, playwright Kate Hennig has created not so much a role model as a patron saint, sucking the theatrical life out of Katherine’s family as well.

In this exceedingly welcome era of female vigor, this show should be riding the rails. Amid Hennig’s wholesale attention to Katherine, it never will.

Katherine was born in 1512 to one of Henry’s knights and was widowed twice by age 31. Against her better judgment, she married Henry in 1543 in exchange for control over his three children’s educations and allowing her feminist chips to fall where they may. Henry died in 1547, with Katherine marrying seaman lover Thom Seymour shortly thereafter. She died the same year giving birth to Seymour’s child, dogged to the grave amid rumors that Seymour had abused Henry’s daughter Elizabeth.

The final scene reveals both the show’s promise and failure as children Edward, Mary and Elizabeth gather at Katherine’s burial site, bearing trinkets and gifts from the heart in tribute to her unparalleled life. But indeed: Between raising her kids, negotiating sex and lineage contracts with Henry, living under the threat of assassination by his hand and acting as his administrative liaison while he takes to the battlefield in France, Kitty has absolutely no personal failings. None. Even her dalliances with Seymour are dutifully curtailed as she assumes her royal commitments — she’s a pariah
among pariahs, superbly handling everything life throws at her at the expense of the character’s grit.

That might make for good politics and hero worship, but it certainly isn’t theater.

[Henry] commands center stage by default, exactly what Hennig hadn’t intended.

Neither does it serve the volatile and corrupt antagonist Henry. While he reveled in his oneupmanship over his subjects and delighted in targeting women’s vulnerabilities, he was by his own admission a crappy soldier. This polar opposite makes him a far more interesting character than Katherine, who’s somehow beyond reproach — the result is that he commands center stage by default, exactly what Hennig hadn’t intended.

Director Rob Lutfy gives Manny Fernandes the floor in playing his Henry off Allison Spratt Pearce’s Katherine — but Fernandes, talented thought he may be, has Henry looking like a crybaby as he encounters Katherine’s persistent unruffledness. For her part, Pearce gives a boatload of that latter quality to Katherine; if only there were some substance beneath it.

Stephen Lone’s Thom is quite the excitable kid, and Lone uses his voice to considerable advantage in reflecting that.

Children Edward (Bobby Chiu/Giovanni Cozic), Elizabeth (Kylie Acuna) and Mary (Cashae Monya) are a handsome bunch, with a solid grasp of material that’s suited for anyone but kids. Mary’s the eldest, and Monya plays her with every bit the required youthful defiance.

Katherine Parr (Allison Spratt Pearce, left) was a born teacher. If you don’t believe it, just ask stepdaughter Elizabeth (Kylie Acuna).

The program lists Kevin Anthenill as the composer and sound designer — but if I didn’t know better, I would have sworn his music beds were straight out of Two Steps from Hell, that absolutely terrific epic movie ensemble. The tunes combine with Sean Fanning’s set, Veronica Murphy’s costumes and Chris Rynne’s lights to create a wonderfully cavernous effect, with we villagers sneaking a look at an authentic British seat of power.

Hennig’s modernist spin will fuel the opinions of a good number of those 37,000 from the other day; arguably, others will point to this play as justification for their hatred of all men, including the overwhelmingly honorable majority (I’m sure I didn’t coin this word, but they’re the genderists who give their movement a lousy name, and they are all over the place). Whichever stripe you are, take care that Katherine’s enormous strength doesn’t sway you. Swoon all you want at her ideals, but don’t confuse them with experience.

This review is based on the matinee performance of Jan. 21. The Last Wife runs through Feb. 11 at Old Town Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St. in Old Town. $42-$53. 619-337-1525, cygnettheatre.com.

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