Review: Alchemy Theatre’s The Virgin Trial: Elizabeth I’s violent life reimagined as part of The Crown, part Criminal Minds – Arts
The Trial of the Virgin from Alchemy Theater (photo by Christopher Shea)
Shakespeare’s history plays, dramatizing five generations of medieval power struggles for the British throne, largely focus on kings. In more modern times, where gender equality has become a priority, queens are finally getting their due in pieces that include The audience, Sixand Kate Hennig’s Queenmaker Trilogy, which explores the lives of three Tudor rulers.
Hennig’s pieces, which recently premiered at the Stratford Festival in Canada, suggest that the more things change, the more they stay the same. And so, we find its 16th-century characters speaking in contemporary language and wearing contemporary clothing as royal women fight against all things misogynistic and the relentless need to prove themselves. The Last woman portrays Katherine Parr, the last of Henry VIII’s six wives, as a feminist superhero; mother’s daughter finds Mary I, the first reigning Queen of England, battling xenophobia and religious nationalism; and The Trial of the Virgin reimagines the story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s young daughter, Elizabeth I, and addresses victim shaming, the power of the popular press and sexual politics.
In The Trial of the Virgin, which received a staged reading at the Alchemy Theater in 2018 and is currently enjoying its first production in Texas, 15-year-old Princess Elizabeth (Soleil Patterson), known as Bess, finds herself interrogated by the Lord Protector Ted (Yanis Kalnins) and his brutally cold henchwoman, Eleanor (Christine Glenn). Bess must defend herself against charges of plotting to kill her brother by another mother, King Edward VI, and having an illicit affair with her stepfather, Lord High Admiral Thomas Seymour (Marty Soole). Thom has been arrested for high treason along with Bess’ loyal housekeeper, Ashley (Ali Meier), and her secretary, Parry (Michael Bonny Bassey), who are believed to be conspirators.
The play plays out like a modern procedural drama, a format conducive to all the intriguing mystery and dramatic discovery. Scenes alternate between real-time interrogations and flashbacks exposing key characters’ motivations for the murder, with each change heralded by flashing lights (courtesy of designer Travis Knight) and the sound of buzzing electricity – probably because the iconic “dun dun” prison cell locks has already been taken from TVs Law and order franchise.
As strong as this ensemble is (particularly Adah Hagen as the wonderfully textured and deliciously indifferent Mary, Bess’s older half-sister), the piece hinges on Patterson’s performance and her ability to show Bess’s evolution from a willful but vulnerable and naive girl. to a young woman with steel nerves and political savvy. What she delivers instead is an unwavering, one-color intensity that plays well and is true to character, but doesn’t contribute to the play’s intended and much-needed plot. It’s a missed opportunity, visibly visible as Bess responds to the Lord Protector’s dismay at her childish behavior. Patterson’s laid-back delivery of the line, “I like to play games,” lacks the warning highlighting what lies beneath this complicated girl’s surface, in anticipation of what’s to come.
The stationary set (designed by stage store Lucky Giraffe) consists of a long table for interrogation and two elevated rooms surrounded by hanging translucent plastic curtains constructed for torture. He’s wonderfully menacing, as are the power suits worn by the two executioners (designed by Stephanie Slayton). Director Michael Cooper’s staging is simple and effective, but the actor’s awkward swapping of props during scene changes kills much of the production’s momentum as well as the urgency needed to maintain procedural dramatic tropes.
The result is an interesting cross between The crown and Criminal mindswhich is perhaps less powerful than what the playwright had in mind, but still solid evening entertainment.
The Trial of the Virgin
The Alchemy Theater, 130 Pedernales St.
Until September 24
A version of this article appeared in print on September 16, 2022 with the title: Review: Alchemy Theater’s Trial of the Virgin