England’s Queen Elizabeth I is among the most mythologized figures in history, the “virgin queen” who spurned diplomatic courtship, faced down the Spanish Armada and ushered in a “Golden Age” lasting more than four decades. But who was Elizabeth before she rose to power? What transformed this precocious yet lonely girl into a leader of steel?
Such are the questions raised by Carolyn Kras’ historical drama Highness, winner of Washington University’s 2006 A.E. Hotchner Playwriting Competition. This month, the university’s Performing Arts Department (PAD) in Arts & Sciences will present the world premiere of Highness in the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre.
Performances take place at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, March 29, 30 and 31; and at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, March 31 and April 1. Tickets are $15 — $9 for students, senior citizens and Washington University faculty and staff — and are available through the Edison Theatre Box Office, (314) 935-6543, and all MetroTix outlets.
The A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre is located in the Mallinckrodt Student Center, 6445 Forsyth Blvd. For more information, call (314) 935-6543.
Highness focuses on Elizabeth’s early adolescence, particularly her relationship with Katherine Parr, the sixth and final wife to Elizabeth’s father, King Henry VIII. The story opens on the eve of Elizabeth’s coronation but unfolds largely in flashback, beginning shortly after the death of Kathryn Howard, Henry’s fifth wife — executed, like Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, on charges of adultery. Henry soon begins wooing Parr, a twice-widowed noblewoman and devout Protestant, who is also courted by the Lord High Admiral Thomas Seymour. Yet when Henry dispatches his rival on a diplomatic mission abroad, Parr accepts the king’s hand in marriage.
“Katherine was basically the only mother Elizabeth ever had,” says Annamaria Pileggi, senior lecturer in the PAD, who directs the cast of 11. “Though she had no children of her own, she was very nurturing to all of Henry’s children and took a special interest in Elizabeth.”
Following Henry’s death, Parr is free to marry Seymour and the couple retires to a country estate, bringing the teenage Elizabeth with them. Parr soon becomes pregnant yet a mysterious rift develops between her and Elizabeth, with rumors pointing to an affair between Elizabeth and Seymour. Parr sends Elizabeth away but dies shortly thereafter, following childbirth.
“It’s interesting to see how rash Elizabeth is as a young woman,” Pileggi notes. “She had all of these stepmothers and they kept dying. How does that affect one’s ability to trust? Then Katherine comes onto the scene and is able to gain Elizabeth’s trust, only to have Elizabeth betray her.
“Because of Katherine’s death, they were never able to reconcile and I think that, for Elizabeth, this was a kind of tipping point,” Pileggi adds. “In a moment of weakness, she acted on impulse and paid for it for the rest of her life.
“As queen, she would never again be so reckless.”
The cast is led by senior Carolina Reiter as Katherine Parr and junior Elizabeth Birkenmeier as Elizabeth. Kurt Taroff, a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the PAD, plays Henry VIII. Senior Ted Drury is Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Wincester. Juniors Reynolds Whalen and Lisa Sullivan appear as Thomas Seymour and Julia, a lady-in-waiting to Parr, respectively.
The scenic design — inspired by 16th century English court painting — is by alumna Megan Chafin (LA 2006). Lighting design is by junior Liz Kramer. Costumes are by senior Leah Battin. Sound is by senior Derek Dohler. Graduate student Lynn Colley serves as dramaturg.
The Hotchner Competition — endowed by alumnus, novelist, poet and playwright A. E. Hotchner — selects one student work for full theatrical production every two years. Winners are chosen by jury the year prior to performance and spend the interim refining their scripts. In 2005 Kras took part in the university’s A.E. Hotchner Playwriting Festival, an annual development lab, where she worked with renowned playwright Naomi Iizuka. Last September a staged reading was held by Chicago’s Theater Seven, a new company launched by a group of recent PAD alumni.
Hotchner, a 1940 graduate of Washington University, is the author of numerous screenplays, novels, plays and memoirs, including the 1966 volume Papa Hemingway, which recounts his long friendship with the famous writer. His memoir, King of the Hill, which recounts growing up in St. Louis, was made into a feature film in 1993.
WHO: Performing Arts Department
WHAT: Highness by Carolyn Kras; directed by Annamaria Pileggi
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, March 29, 30 and 31; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, March 31 and April 1
WHERE: A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre, Mallinckrodt Student Center, 6445 Forsyth Blvd.
COST:$15; $9 for seniors, students and Washington University faculty and staff. Available at the Edison Theatre Box Office, (314) 935-6543, and all MetroTix outlets.
INFORMATION: (314) 935-6543