Review: The Virgin Trial by Alchemy Theatre Company
by Brian Paul Scipione
Austin’s own Alchemy Theater continues to do its part to take on challenging drama with vital political significance. While it would certainly be easier to fall back on feel-good performances especially during such trying times, the company persists on producing daring theater which sparks not only joy but heartfelt conversation. Their latest offering, Kate Hennig’s The Virgin Trial (originally produced in the U.S. at the Cygnet Theatre in San Diego in September, 2019) tells the story of a teen-aged Elizabeth the First before she became queen. The audience advisory wanrs that this play deals with mature themes of sexuality and violence and includes occasional strong language. This is no understatement. Themes of The Virgin Trial include sexual impropriety, victim shaming, torture, deceit, and treason, just to name a few. The fact that the royal protagonist portrayed by Soleil Patterson is a mere fifteen years old makes the ordeal all the more unnerving.
The heart of the story is not the play’s events but Bess’s reaction to them. She is under investigation for potential involvement in a plot to murder her brother King Edward. Ted the Lord Protector (Yanis Kalnins) and noblewoman Eleanor (Christine Glenn) lead the investigation. They focus on Thom, the Lord High Admiral (Marty Soole) and husband to Katherine Parr, the sixth wife of Henry VIII.
After the death of Henry VIII and her stepmother’s remarriage to Thom, Bess lived with Thom and Katherine. Her stepmother died, making the unconventional relationship between Thom and Bess even more suspicious . Bess’s governess, Ashley (Ali Meier) and Parry, her secretary (Michael Bonny Bassey) are subjected to intense questioning and outright torture. Bess finds an unusual ally in Mary Tudor, her Catholic half sister(Adah Hagen).
The tension of the play starts high and builds steadily on a roller coaster of doubt and accusation. Young Bess, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, embodies the bravado of the former and the cleverness of the later. Her inquisitors accuse her of having the worst traits of her parents ,even going so far as to imply that her maternal lineage is a priori proof positive of a libidinous nature. It is soon apparent that young Bess may not be as innocent as she first appears.
Admiral Thom, as played by Marty Soole, is her polar opposite. He is unabashedly sleazy, a living testament to the power of cringe. Every time he left the stage, I was left with an overwhelming desire to take a hot shower. Watching him interact with young Bess is like watching a video in which a fuzzy bunny is dropped in a cage with venomous snake. Yet, Soole does portray moments of confessional quiet. In those moments when Soleil Patterson slips stealthily into Bess's alpha role. She may be put off by Thom’s frat-boy-esque sexual aggression, but when it comes to politics, she turns a deft hand.
Patterson’s Bess is the runaway star of the evening. Her character is densely layered, but she transitions between them with the subtle grace of the Cheshire Cat’s disappearing smile. She manages to wear her heart on her sleeve while simultaneously revealing her calculating nature. With the prosecutors she appears child-like, innocent, and victimized in one moment and coolly in control the next. The investigators are increasingly frustrated by her throughout the first act—and in truth, so is the audience.
A common trope in the world of drama is the status exercise in which actors explore their relationship in terms of power and authority. Patterson’s performance is a masterclass in status. This is all the more satisfying for an audience that knows she will go on to become one of the most powerful rulers in history.
Bess is, in turns, on the edge of tears; shark-like; cornered; razor sharp; gullible; abused; confused; devious; and domineering. Every emotion is fully realized and believable. She asserts at one point that she does not dream to be queen but rather sees herself as the king. There is no oxymoron here. At another moment she encapsulates her own unique character by describing herself as a star, an unstoppable force that draws everything towards it, while from afar it appears to be a mere dot of light.
The play would be uneven if Patterson was the only powerhouse. Fortunately, director Michael Cooper cast exemplary actors in all the roles.
Hagen as Mary Tudor channels Julie Garner with her sinister, cynical portrayal of the beleaguered older sister constantly obliged to fix her little sister's messes. Her impatience and impertinence are charmingly ironic and make one wish for such a reliable sibling.
Meier and Bassey as governess and secretary do double duty, providing comic relief and tragic moments in equal measure. In the role of Eleanor the inquisitor, Glenn is outright frightening; she has the calculated cruelty of a dominatrix and the cool reserve of a hired assassin. Kalnins as the Lord Protector presents initially as an affable middle school principal but quickly devolves into oily-tongued politician.
Make up and the costumes are incredible. Slick suits, bustles, and leather gloves are integrated knowledgeably and seamlessly. This play is so inherently character-driven that the setting and time period are almost moot. Though Alchemy Theatre updates the action to the modern day, phrases like “bump off,” “bank statements,” and “cook the books” come off as unnecessary, if not fully anachronistic.
That one quibble may be set aside, for this is a night of must-see theater, both timely and timeless.
September 02 - September 24, 2022
130 Pedernales Street
Austin, TX, 78702
Held in the Alchemy’s intimate Mastrogeorge Theatre, the show runs September 1 – 24 at 130 Pedernales in East Austin.
Tickets are $25 Student, $35 General Admission, $45 VIP for Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm. Tickets are available online at thealchemytheatre.org.