At the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (The Yard)
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – The six of “Six” at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater are the half dozen unlucky women married to the English monarch Henry VIII back in the early 1500’s. The wives have been dead for more than 400 years but writers Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss from England have brought them back to exhilarating life in a production that is part rock concert, part history lesson, and part cry for female empowerment, all in a dazzling 80 intermissionless minutes.
“Six” originated at the Edinburgh Fringe and quickly became a theatrical sensation in England. The CST landed the North American premiere and judging from the rapturous audience response, especially by young spectators in The Yard Theater, the show has traveled across the Atlantic with no problems.
Six enormously talented young ladies play Henry’s much abused and ill-fated wives, in chronological order Catherine of Aragon (Adrianna Hicks), Anne Boleyn (Andrea Macasaet), Jane Seymour (Abby Mueller of the estimable Chicago theatrical Mueller family), Anna of Cleves (Brittney Mack), Katherine Howard (Samantha Pauly), and Catherine Parr (Anna Uzele). Henry had Boleyn and Howard beheaded on charges of adultery. The others died of more or less natural causes with only Catherine Parr surviving the king.
The show’s score is drenched in hot rhythms and clever and satirical lyrics. Every number demands the strong, expressive voice we hear on The Yard stage. It’s no surprise that the CD of the music is a big seller in the UK.
The production is in perpetual motion, with the ensemble moving in razor sharp and complex movements that charge the staging with nonstop energy. The performers never flag in their exuberance and intensity, which speaks volumes about their stamina as well as their talent and versatility. As an additional reflection of the show’s feminist point-of-view, four of the six members of the ensemble are women of color.
Director credits are shared by Moss and Jamie Armitage. But a few minutes into the evening I was checking the playbill for the choreographer credit, in this case Carrie-Anne Ingrouille. She apparently is a British admirer of Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett and knows how to keep her ensemble moving at a whirlwind pace, flowing from scene to scene with eye-grabbing precision.
The first moments of the show establish that we are not in for a conventional excursion into English history. The performers wear gaudy short-skirt outfits with a vaguely 16th century look. But as a frame of musical reference for the audience, the performers list as their “queenspirations” superstars like Beyonce, Shakira, Adele, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Ariana Grande, Britney Spears, and Alicia Keys.
The show is constructed like a contest among the wives to earn the honor of being the wife who has most suffered from the cruelties of the king. They all establish their bona fides as abused wives, each stating their case in a rock-driven song. The wives are backed by a stomping on-stage all-female rock combo called the Ladies in Waiting.
The show knows its English history, the songs and dialogue supplying a basic back story for each actual queen. It was tough going for these women, variously suffering multiple miscarriages and humiliations from their increasingly unstable but all powerful king. But that was the fate of royal women back in medieval and Renaissance times. Aristocratic females were commodities, political pawns used to forge political alliances between states and then as breeding machines to continue the royal line. And woe to the women who either could not get pregnant or produced only females.
In waving its feminist colors the show proposes a revisionist assessment of the relationship between Henry and his consorts. The wives on stage complain that history as treated them as anonymous figures in the reign of Henry VII, women who would never be remembered except for their connection to the king. But “Six” turns that proposal on its head. In reality, the wives proclaim, they made the king famous in history by the sheer multitude of his marriages. Who remembers all those kings who only had one or two wives? It’s Catherine of Aragon and her unlucky successors who deserve the cumulative credit for putting Henry VIII so vividly on the historical map. With the possible except of Henry V (thanks to Shakespeare), none of the other Henrys cut any kind of a figure in the popular historical imagination.
The six performers mesh seamlessly throughout the evening, tickling the audience with their air of breezy anachronism. The wives treat “Six” as a production presented in front of a reacting live audience. One of the queens takes a selfie on stage for a down front patron and the wisecracks and backchat among the characters are distinctly new millennium in their language. While feminism is the dominant motif, the wives don’t hesitate to belittle and criticize their colleagues to further their own case as the most mistreated spouse, exposing feelings of very unsisterly rivalry.
The six performers listed above all share equal billing, though Macasaet gets a disproportionate percentage of the laughs with her perky wise guy demeanor, but then she is entitled, playing Anne Boleyn, the most tragic of Henry’s ladies. Uzele makes a major impression as Catherine Parr delivering the most emphatic of the feminist anthems, “I Don’t Need Your Love.” The audience reacted raucously to any feminist flag waving during the evening but Uzele really sold her testimony and got a special roar of feminist solidarity from the crowd. But every performer got enthusiastic applause for her spotlight moment.
The production fits perfectly on the stage of the new Yard playing space. The theater technology made the most of the lighting effects (designed by Tim Deiling). But what’s a proper rock concert without a light show?
The playbill suggests that Marlow and Moss were neophytes when they created this original musical. It’s hard to believe that the creative, confident, and professional production at The Yard was the work of a team in their final year of college. The show must certainly have traversed through a revision process as it proceeded from the Edinburgh Fringe to London’s West End and Navy Pier, and perhaps to New York City.
On the evidence of the audience reaction at my jammed performance, “Six” would be received joyously on Broadway, especially by a young and eager audience who have kept “Wicked” a sellout hit for a couple of decades. The audience at The Yard was loaded with packs of teenagers in shorts and T-shirts. They may not be history scholars or fans of the traditional musical theater but they are obviously willing to be excited and instructed by an imaginative production that connects with them so personally.
The show gets a rating of
“Six” runs through June 30 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:45 p. m., Saturday at 6 and 8:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $32 to $62. Call 312 595 5600 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. May 2019
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