Review | “Six” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Review | “Six” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Anna of Cleves (Brittney Mack, at center) performs “Get Down.” Photo by Liz Lauren.

by Elizabeth Ellis

Sometimes an audience witnesses the perfect confluence of events and talent and timing, and what results from this fortuitous union is a cultural phenomenon. This was the glorious occasion on Wednesday at Chicago Shakespeare Theater at the North American premiere of the new musical SIX. Part high-energy rock and rap and hip-hop concert, part bass-booming dance club, part exhilarating feminist empowerment, part history lesson of the Tudor dynasty: this new work by writers Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow — with direction by Moss and Jamie Armitage — gives voice to the six extraordinary women in this unique sisterhood, showing how each possessed a personal story and identity separate from their unions to one of the most powerful men in history.

“Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived.” That’s the mnemonic countless history teachers use to list the fates of the succession of wives of England’s King Henry VIII. An obsession with producing a male heir who would survive to adulthood and a notorious appetite for women led Henry to seek out multiple partners in and out of wedlock. His first marriage was to the Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon, the widow of his older brother Arthur. Henry’s frustration with her inability to bear a son led him to pursue the noblewoman Anne Boleyn, with whose sister Mary he had already been having an affair. Anne gave birth to a daughter (the future Queen Elizabeth I), but Henry’s suspicions of her infidelities eventually cost Anne her head. Henry’s next marital conquest was one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour; they became engaged the day after Anne’s execution. Jane died in childbirth, and soon after the German Anna of Cleves filled the vacated role of Henry’s consort based on her appearance in a painting by Hans Holbein. When the in-person Anna didn’t meet the standard set in her portrait, Henry dispatched her with two homes and a generous settlement. Fifth on the list was the teenaged Katherine Howard, a first cousin and lady-in-waiting to Anne Boleyn, whose affair with a courtier led her to the same fate. Henry’s sixth wife, the wealthy widow Catherine Parr (who survived him), helped him return to good terms with his daughters Mary and Elizabeth.

The strong inspiration from modern musicals like “Hamilton” can easily be heard in the music and lyrics, though Marlow and Moss shine on their own merit. The six fantastic triple-threats use posture and bluster and more than a little snark as they compete to see which of them endured the most in their life with Henry. Adrianna Hicks as Catherine of Aragon hits the gut and the heart with the blistering “No Way” and lands an astounding high C in the process. Andrea Macasaet embodies pure sass and fire as Anne Boleyn; her “Don’t Lose Ur Head” acts as her defiant statement of purpose and self-determination. Abby Mueller as Jane Seymour commands the stage with her quiet presence and astounding voice in the power ballad “Heart of Stone.” All six wives contribute to the hallucinatory rave “Haus of Holbein,” which describes the ludicrous, painful, and dangerous routines women practiced to attain the strict beauty norms of that era. Brittney Mack’s Anna of Cleves enjoys the good life, thanks to her ex’s bounty, in the fun yet powerful “Get Down.” Samantha Pauly’s Katherine Howard heartbreakingly describes years of multiple sexual assaults, all strangely tinged with hope for what happens the next time, in “All You Wanna Do.” Anna Uzele as Catherine Parr asserts her desire for independence in the soaring “I Don’t Need Your Love.”

While SIX doesn’t employ a traditional linear storyline, the stories of the wives follow the progression of history. Their own narratives are sufficiently engrossing, which is part of the main reason Moss and Marlow created this piece. While the device of the wives competing over “I had it worse!” isn’t completely necessary, it does give more of a throughline for the audience to follow. The direction from Moss and Armitage is sharp and snappy, which is essential for a musical that packs so much into 80 minutes. Gabriella Slade’s astounding costumes deconstruct the stiff ruffs and heavy gowns and crowns of the 16th Century, and give the wives colorful, sparkling space-age reimaginings. It’s in these costumes that the six execute Carrie-Anne Ingrouille’s stunning choreography, so beautiful and intricate that any major talent from Beyoncé to Ariana Grande should take note. The set, sound and lighting by Emma Bailey, Paul Gatehouse, and Tim Deiling, respectively, create the vibrant feel of a concert in a major arena, and the hottest nightclub and an all-night awesome party. Roberta Duchak’s superb music direction, and the four stellar women musicians (“ladies in waiting”) onstage, prove women can rock out just as well as their male counterparts.

SIX is Broadway-quality, which is where it should land, with well-deserved accolades. As much as it has the feel of a piece that capitalizes on cultural and political themes of the moment, its significance runs deeper than that. We learn more about the stories behind these women: how they have been viewed through the lens of history only for the monarch they married, how the women overcame societal pressure to conform to a nearly impossible ideal, and how they took responsibility for their own lives. In the present, where women’s rights are being challenged by multiple organizations and ridiculous leaders, SIX shows us that even under the most brutal and repressive forces, women may bend, but they will never break.

SIX runs through June 30. More info at chicagoshakes.com.

About author

Elizabeth Ellis

Elizabeth is an actor, playwright, musician, and a graduate of De Paul University. She studied theatre and improvisation at the Second City Training Center, the Actors’ Center, and at the Royal National Theatre Studio in London. Elizabeth has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tympanic Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Second City's Children's Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Bailiwick Arts Center, and London's Canal Cafe Theatre. Six of her plays have been chosen as part of the Abbie Hoffman and the Around the Coyote festivals.

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