Divorced. Beheaded. Died. Divorced. Beheaded. Survived. What a clever mnemonic device to track the tragic lives of Henry VIII’s many wives. And this play will not let you forget it.
It has a simple premise: Henry (James Cougar Canfield) awakes from death in purgatory, where he’s visited by all his wives—the jury to his judgment. For those who don’t remember, they were Catherine of Aragon (Hilary Kelman), Anne Boleyn (Amy Frey), Jane Seymour (Laryssa Schoeck), Anne of Cleves (Jennifer Haining), Catherine Howard (Margaret Gorrell), and Katherine Parr (Claiborne Tomlinson).
Each takes a turn antagonizing the arrogant monarch. But not all confrontations are terrible; most contain a spark of love or affection. Yet, each quickly devolves into accusations and revelations. Henry hurls all sorts of hypocrisies to justify his behavior: this one cheated (Howard), that one was too challenging (i.e. a small man’s way of saying he was threatened by female intelligence and strength—both Aragon and Boleyn), that one not pretty (poor Cleves). Only Seymour and Parr remain fairly unscathed, but they, too, confidently remind Henry of his shortcomings: infidelity, gluttony, egoism, lust, and misogyny. All of which, paired with unchecked power, led him to break with the Catholic Church and engage in sanctioned kidnapping, child-marriage, and murder (those beheadings).
Ladies in Waiting: The Judgement of Henry VIII
closes July 15, 2017
Ladies in Waiting is really, really good. In large part because it is so well written—not necessarily in the Queen’s English, but it sets a high tone and keeps it, with quick, conversational dialogue that easily taps into current, contemporary themes. I mean, it is a good history lesson, but it’s sad to think we’ve gone not so far from the 1500s when it was acceptable for a male leader to upgrade wives for petty things like appearance and to slander them openly. Publically. At least beheading has gone out of style.
Fine acting, and each lady relishes sticking it to Henry. Canfield takes it well, looking very much the part of a slightly pudgy yet overly confident man who takes what he wants.
“You beat me down,” Anne of Cleves—who was so ugly she became known simply as his “beloved sister”—tells him, “not with hand…with whispers.”
Boleyn—that “iconic, feminist hero” who is sassy, brassy, and classy—calls Henry on his indifference: “You cut off my head and all you can do is shrug?”
But the best comes from Aragon, who gave 24 years of her life to be cast aside and torn asunder from her daughter, Mary. “You tore the world apart for a woman that wasn’t even your wife!”
Henry—obsessed with begetting male progeny to preserve his line, which informs much of his logic for trading-in women—is mortified to learn that his legacy is female. That he’s remembered more for his marriages than the Reformation. That it is not his son Edward with his beloved Jane that endures, but Elizabeth. The daughter born of Boleyn and championed by Parr, who helped restore her to the line of succession, and whose very existence is owed to Henry’s lust. If he’d never divorced Aragon, we’d not have had the greatest English monarch. Ever. For as little as he valued women, history really only values him through his women. Is he willing to accept that? That is Henry’s dilemma.
Ladies in Waiting uses simple, effective staging that creates a natural flow. Everything is so self-effacing—a lovely way to portray Henry VIII—that it is brilliant. Why complicate this great idea of a play with the pretention that plagues kings in life?
And, I totally recommend it. It’s engaging, relevant, and fun, despite the dark undercurrent.
Ladies in Waiting: The Judgement of Henry VIII . Written by James Cougar Canfield. Directed by Mitchell Glass. Featuring James Cougar Canfield, Hilary Kelman, Amy Frey, Laryssa Schoeck, Jennifer Haining, Margaret Gorrell, and Claiborne Tomlinson. Music composed by Kaitlin Gould. Original costume designs by Kaitlin Gould and Margaret Gorrell. Promotional material designed by Jillian Hayes. Stage Managed by Claudia Marino. Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.