Playwright Kate Hennig has been fascinated with the women of Tudor England. San Diego’s Cygnet Theatre produced her first play on the topic, The Last Wife, and now it is presenting the U.S. premiere of her second of a projected trilogy, The Virgin Trial. A physically and psychologically brutal examination of power politics following the death of King Henry VIII, Cygnet’s production both thrills and chills.
Henry thought that he had everything set up before he died. The British throne would go to his one legitimate son, Edward, and the succession would go to his daughter, Mary (Brittney M. Caldwell), and then to another daughter, Elizabeth (Olivia Hodson). But Edward (known as Eddie, referred to but not seen) was only nine years old and sickly when he assumed the throne, and eventually his mother’s brother, Edward Seymour, known as Ted (Tom Stephenson) emerged as Eddie’s Lord Protector.
Ted, having grown powerful in his Lord Protector role, became determined that the monarchy should stay in the Seymour family. To accomplish this goal, he had to get Eddie to change the law of succession. And, to gain public acceptance of this change, he needed to discredit both Mary and Elizabeth. Mary, he regarded as not a problem, as she was Catholic. Eddie had been raised as a strict Protestant, and he was very interested in making Protestantism the official church. (His father’s version of the Church of England had been tolerant of those who wished to continue to practice Catholicism).
Elizabeth, or Bess, was more of a problem. She was also an adolescent, but she was clever and canny. She was courted by Ted’s brother, Thom (Steven Lone) and was succumbing to his many charms. But, Thom had already secretly married Katherine Parr, Henry’s last wife. Parr was caring for Elizabeth and was none too happy about the attention Thom was paying her.
The play imagines that Ted calls in Elizabeth in an effort to get information from her that he could use in discrediting Thom. Ted plays “good cop,” and an assistant named Eleanor (Lisel Gorrell-Getz) plays “bad cop” in an ongoing tug-of-war with Bess’ beliefs and emotions. Eleanor is also outright torturing two servants in the household, Ashley (Monique Gaffney), and Parry (Wil Bethmann), to gain information they are reluctant to give.
Now, of course, we know that Bess was eventually crowned Queen Elizabeth I and ruled for forty-four years. She cultivated a reputation as “The Virgin Queen,” even though she had many suiters. And, Ted and Eleanor’s investigation calls into question her status as a virgin, given Thom’s advances.
That’s a lot of plot for one play, but Ms. Hennig’s choice to make The Virgin Trial into a psychological thriller cuts to the chase.
And Cygnet’s production, under Rob Lutfy’s taut direction, both energizes and helps the cause. Mr. Stephenson and Ms. Gorrell-Getz make for a well-matched pair of villains, Mr. Lone is a sexy and dashing suitor-cum-hero, Ms. Gaffney and Mr. Bethmann suffer their torture with admirable verisimilitude, and Ms. Caldwell’s Mary turns out to be an understanding and empathic ally (for now: apparently Mary and Bess’ conflict will surface in the third play).
But, it is Ms. Hodson’s performance that makes this production. Entirely credible as a young girl, her Bess ends up displaying far more depth and complexity than any of those who know her could ever imagine.
The physical production is deliberately bleak. Elizabet Puksto’s set design is draped in black and is contemporary in feel. Veronica Murphy’s costumes have more of a period feel but are, perhaps, only suggestive of the period. Chris Rynne’s lighting design is dark and stark. MaeAnn Ross’ sound design features odd noises that work to amplify the emotional tension.
The Virgin Trial is hard to watch at times, but its tension builds masterfully to revelations that are both plausible and surprising.