"Six Dead Queens and an Inflatable Henry"
The queens are dead — long live the queens! The subjects of one of history's most famous mnemonic devices rise above their infamous fates ("divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived") and rewrite their tragic tales, complete with music, catfights and one particularly winsome impersonation of high-strung horses, whinnying and jockeying for position at the starting gate of a race.
"Six Dead Queens and an Inflatable Henry," first devised by England's now-defunct Foursight Theatre in 1999, got an initial reconfiguration with Evanston's Piccolo Theatre in 2010. The current remount marks Piccolo's first foray into Chicago. It's one of the strongest pieces I've seen from this theater, providing a terrific showcase for the half-dozen women who bring the ex-consorts of "King Harry" to life in the afterlife. (A current randy royal also named "Harry" makes an appearance via tabloid.) Some of the bits deflate too quickly, but for the most part this is a smart feminist revision that adds up to a wickedly fun historical cabaret.
Set on a giant raked bed in a purgatorial boudoir, the show opens with the six women lumpishly arrayed under the covers — until the flatulence of Anna of Cleves (Deborah Craft Proud) drives them up for air. The tomboyish suspenders-clad "Cleavage," as the rest of the queens call her, conforms to her popular image as good-hearted but sexless.
Henry divorced her (and gave her a generous settlement) without ever consummating the union, which actually sounds like a pretty good deal given his track record.
The rest also initially play off the broad stereotypes bequeathed them by history. Catherine of Aragon (Amy Gorelow) is a rosary-clutching Spanish spitfire; Anne Boleyn (Vanessa Hughes) is a sultry vamp; Jane Seymour (Berner Taylor) is a wispy goody-two-shoes; Kathryn Howard (Nicole Keating) is a teeny-bopping airhead; and Katherine Parr (Denita Linnertz) is an imperious matriarch.
The competition isn't merely physical — Linnertz's Protestant Parr and Gorelow's devoutly Catholic Catherine engage in theological differences over their needlework, the former crooning "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" over the latter's histrionic "Ave Maria."
But though the show emphasizes the broader brand of comedy Piccolo does best, it also allows breathing space for more wistful interludes.
Puzzling over a contemporary news item, one of the wives asks "What's an unwanted pregnancy?" "A girl," comes the pointed, poignant response.
Through Oct. 6 at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.; $28 at 773-404-7336 or greenhousetheater.org
"Males Order Brides"
The quest for female consorts also drives Quest Theatre Ensemble's third trip into populist melodrama in playwright Billy St. John's "Males Order Brides," in which a quartet of lonely men in frontier Colorado fall prey to a plot hatched by dastardly lawyer (but of course) "Big" Harry Deal (Jason Bowen).
The plan is for actress Starr Billings (played by Kieran Welsh-Phillips) to impersonate all four fresh-off-the-stagecoach brides. After the weddings, Deal will dispatch the grooms down a mine shaft, and he and Billings will pocket the life insurance payouts. (And you thought HBO's "Deadwood" had some tough customers.)
It's a silly premise, not helped by stretching the thin material out over two acts and more than two hours.
But the performances put a solid shine on the fool's gold, especially Bowen's mustachioed villain, Welsh-Phillips' quick-change conniver, and Keith Cavanaugh as "Grubby Shurtz," an unapologetic rip-off of the mush-mouthed "Gabby Johnson" in "Blazing Saddles" (which was of course a rip-off of Walter Huston's Howard in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre").
But if you're looking for a cheap family outing, this might fill the bill. The kids in the house hissed, booed and tossed popcorn at the villain and villainess, and as always with Quest, the shenanigans are free.
Through Oct. 14 by Quest Theatre Ensemble, 1609 W. Gregory St.; free, reservations accepted at 312-458-0895 and questensemble.orgCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun