The King's Whore

nytheatre.com review by Naomi McDougall Graham
July 28, 2013

As anyone who has been part of theater knows, sometimes bad theater happens to good people. The team of The King’s Whore seem like good people. They demonstrate great potential in their ambition and energy and there is no doubt in my mind that they have and will again create great theater. Starcatcher Productions attempted something grand with this, their inaugural production, and should truly be applauded for that. We should all look forward to future productions. This particular production is an unfortunate mis-fire.

The King's Whore bills itself as a "A Modern/Historical Mash-Up, State-of-the-Art Seductive, Revolutionary Recounting of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn's Debacle of a Relationship." As it happens, this is also a good summation of the play’s primary difficulties.

“Revolutionary Recounting”: The script, written by Rob Santana, gives an accounting of the historical events from the time of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon through to his marriage and eventual beheading of Anne Boleyn. That’s an ambitious amount of ground to cover, even with a play that runs slightly more than 2 and ½ hours. To put it in perspective, Henry VIII, Shakespeare's own 2 and ½ hour contribution on the same subject, covers only about half as much material. Santana’s decision here creates the most fundamental problem that the play experiences: that as it’s barreling through the 35 years it spans, no space is left for characters to rise above the level of caricature nor for the playwright to present any nuanced perspective on the events or the motivations of the people who wrought them. The resulting play winds up feeling like a lengthy superficial overview history lesson of a period of history with which most audience members will already be familiar (it being the juicy, sexy, oft-retold chapter that it is). 

Additionally, while I spent the play waiting for the “revolutionary recounting” to begin, even the morning after I have been unable to clearly identify what Mr. Santana intended that to be. My best guess is that he hoped to show Anne as a politically motivated “modern” woman rather than just a seductress or pawn. While that is a compelling theory (though hardly revolutionary; I believe it is quite well-trod), it is not sufficiently supported in the play, if that was indeed the playwright’s intent. Anne’s political views only arrive, quite tangentially and unprovoked in the final 30 minutes of the piece and there is no suggestion earlier in the piece that she had any personal political agenda or views at all.

“Modern/Historical Mash-Up”: I’m still not entirely sure whether Jen Wineman’s direction breathed some life into what was a difficult script or simply served to clutter and distract from it. I think by turns it did both.

The production adds certain “modern” elements to its historical story. This primarily takes the form of semi-period/semi-modern costumes, set design, and music as well as modern sensibilities and words intermittently appearing in the story. Ms. Wineman went to town with this idea and was successful in creating a stunning production concept for the piece as well as some terrific dance numbers (these occur a couple times in the first act and serve as enjoyable breathers). The purpose of these modern elements, however fun, though, is unclear. I did not find that they particularly revealed anything further about the story or characters (except, perhaps, obtusely to support the theory that Anne B. was ahead of her time?) and I found myself wondering a couple of times how the play would be different if the actors were all just wearing strictly period costumes on a strictly period set. Apart from being less visually interesting, I don’t think it would have been.

Where the added “modernity” ironically does a disservice to the play is in weakening Anne’s impact. If we’re to consider the idea that Anne was a badass woman, grabbing power the only way she could (again, a salient theory and perspective, though insufficiently supported by the writing), she’s impressive because she did so within the context of her time; in a man’s world. By infusing the play with modern language and sensibilities, her impact in the story is actually weakened rather than pointed up.

“State-of-the-Art Seductive….Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s Debacle of a Relationship”: There are plenty of ways to interpret and re-interpret the epic relationship of Henry and Anne: she was a deeply sexy seductress who bewitched Henry into risking his kingdom for a chance to sleep with her; she was an innocent pawn thrown at Henry for the political purposes of her father and used by Henry for an already sought-after break with Rome; she was a strong, conniving, and whip-smart Machiavellian who played Henry for her own political purposes. Whatever version you prefer, this relationship quite literally forever changed the monarchy and forever changed England.

In this production, whether it is a fault in the writing, casting, acting, or direction is difficult to discern, but this central relationship around which the play revolves is mysteriously limp. Kate O’Phalen as Anne seems like a perfectly nice and unremarkable sort of person, prone to bouts of bratty-ness, who does finally develop some chutzpah in the 11th hour when Henry decides to cut off her head. Carl Hendrick Louis’ Henry VIII, on the other hand, behaves almost exclusively like an unusually hyper and flamboyant seven-year-old boy. Even if you’re willing to accept this and let your historical notions of these people go, their romance, even on it’s own terms, doesn’t resonate. Contrary to being “seductive”, it seems downright asexual. The two manically giggle and pull funny faces at each other and say they’re taken with each other, but even the moment of their consummation is made silly and cutesy. No real pull between them, either sexual or political, is ever felt. Perhaps this was the point and I’ve missed it, but it was difficult to buy that this was a relationship that rattled the very structure of society.

The set design by Deb O is stunning: a stark white and black painted space with wonderfully creative and fanciful neon furniture emerging from the walls. The costumes, too, designed by Aaron P. Mastin, are beautiful with a masterful blending of modern and historical styles.

Standout performances include Lauren Orkus as Mary Boleyn who delivered the most impactful emotional moment of the evening when, quite early on, she realizes she’s ruined all future prospects with her loose behavior. Ms. Orkus brings a refreshing dimensionality and texture to her character. Laura Esposito is wonderful as the firebrand Catherine of Aragon. She skillfully carries one of the funniest scenes in which she torments Anne, with whom she knows her husband is having an affair. Slate Holmgren pulls laughs as Henry Percy and, by delightful contrast, carries a chilling gravitas as Cromwell.

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