Last month, I made my way to Timeline Theatre for my latest history lesson. This time, it was a fascinating modern take on the House of Tudor (1485-1603). I do remember enough from my high-school History days about Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. I can’t recall ever hearing about Thomas Seymour and Katherine Parr. Yet, the latter figure was noteworthy. She was Henry’s sixth wife and the only one who outlived him.
As part of its 20th season, Timeline is presenting a highly engaging re-imagination of her marriage to the tempestuous Henry with the American premiere of Kate Hennig’s play, “The Last Wife”. It was first presented at the Stratford Festival in Canada last year where it enjoyed a three month, sold-out engagement.
Hennig’s play is not some Masterpiece Theater historical drama. Here, the actors are in modern dress and speak modern English. The action is set not at court but in the couple’s private quarters. Integral to the play’s appeal is that the audience, at one moment, is spying on their secret royal lives, complete with young children and raging quarrels, while, a moment later, we seem to be witnessing a 2016 dysfunctional family.
A modern note was struck right at the outset when Henry, convincingly played by Steve Pickering, barges in, grabs Katherine and forcibly kisses her, demonstrating his dominance, while a startled Seymour looks on. Immediately, my mind flashed to Donald Trump and the fresh revelations of his predatory conduct with numerous women.
The play accurately portrays Katherine’s keen mind and love of power. AnJi White skillfully portrays a modern woman whose voluptuous figure can seduce and reduce two powerful men to her will. Parr must also have enjoyed an alluring figure. She was Henry’s consort before their marriage, carried on an illicit affair with Seymour and had four husbands in her life. She deserves greater recognition for getting Henry to pass the Third Succession Act of 1542 that restored his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, to the throne. Without her persuasion, no Queen Elizabeth I. History turns on such twists of fate.
There’s no better way to get your English History refresher than to see “The Last Wife”, now playing through December 18. For tickets and information, visit timelinetheatre.com or call 773/281-TIME.
I also want to call attention to the full range of Timeline’s education efforts. I am only familiar with the richly informative outer lobby displays mounted for each production. This time, there was a video about Henry , a life-size depiction of Henry with a cutout for female patrons to insert their face and six panels depicting each of Henry’s wives. In the earlier production, “Bakersfield Mist”, the lobby featured an art history primer on Jackson Pollock and Abstract Expressionism. Post-show discussions with company members and a monthly panel discussion, Sunday Scholars, examining the themes of each play are regular features.
Timeline is now celebrating the 10th anniversary of its “Living History Education Program” for students at Chicago Public schools. Students explore the connections between history, art and their own lives. The intent is to teach students theater skills while fostering their capacity to think creatively. Since the program started, Timeline has turned history into Living History for more than 3,500 students.
To honor the theater’s 20th anniversary season and its mission to present stories inspired by history, Timeline was awarded the 2016 MacArthur Foundation’s Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. Bravo!