Chicago Theater Review: ELIZABETH REX (Chicago Shakespeare Theater)

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by Dan Zeff on December 9, 2011

in Theater-Chicago

MEET THE QUEEN

Timothy Findley’s Elizabeth Rex confines Queen Elizabeth I and William Shakespeare inside a royal barn one wintry night in February 1601. The placement of the two most luminous personalities of England’s Golden Age should set off glorious dramatic and theatrical fireworks at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. The performers do their best to rock the CST stage emotionally, but the play ends up providing more heat than light.

Elizabeth Rex by Timothy Findley at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff

The play’s conceit centers on the queen’s turbulent reaction to the approaching execution of the Earl of Essex for treason. Elizabeth has sentenced the earl to beheading at the Tower of London early in the morning of February 25, but she is conflicted. As a queen, she had to pass the death sentence on Essex as a traitor for leading a rebellion against her government, but the Earl is also the queen’s lover, at least for the purposes of this play. (Findley took some dramatic license by having Elizabeth openly admit Essex was her lover; in real life, the relationship was only a rumor and obviously at odds with Elizabeth’s unofficial title of “the Virgin Queen.”) In the play, Elizabeth grows increasingly distraught as the moment of execution grows closer and erupts in a volcanic display of grief as she hears a cannon from the Tower sounding the finality of Essex’s death.

Elizabeth Rex by Timothy Findley at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Chicago Theater Review by Dan ZeffThe action opens with Shakespeare’s acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, concluding a performance of Much Ado About Nothing for the entertainment of the queen and her court. The story then moves to a barn where the actors and their wardrobe mistress engage in some raucous and bawdy banter. They are confined to the barn because the queen has levied a curfew to restrain supporters of Essex from rioting on the eve of his execution (Philip Rosenberg bathes the characters in warm autumnal illumination on Daniel Ostling’s detailed bi-level set).

Also in the barn, Shakespeare works on his latest play, a tragedy about Antony and Cleopatra, but he’s wary that resemblances between the ancient lovers and Essex and Elizabeth might offend the queen, an absolute monarch not to be trifled with.

Elizabeth Rex by Timothy Findley at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff

Unfortunately, not much happens in a narrative way until the queen makes an unexpected appearance, her face coated in white powder and her head topped with a red wig. The queen remains in the barn for the rest of the play, spending much of her time in heated verbal byplay with Ned Lowenscroft, an actor who plays leading women’s roles (females were not allowed on the stage in Elizabethan times). Ned is gay and dying of syphilis, his approaching death making him extremely bold in his conversation with the queen.

At the end of the first act, the queen and Ned make a pact: he will teach her to be a woman and she will teach him to be a man. The mutual challenge results in some incendiary exchanges of dialogue and one affecting scene in which Ned, gently crooning a song, applies makeup to the suddenly submissive queen who, minus her wig, reveals her bald head (Mariann Verheyen designed the convincing period costumes, and Melissa Veal makes invaluable contributions with her wig and make-up designs).

The heated exchanges between Elizabeth and Ned are worth hearing, but one still gets the feeling that the queen is slumming in spending so much time with the raggedy acting company. Ned’s liberties with Elizabeth smack of the playwright reaching for high drama. Would the queen, even in her fragile emotional state, really seek any kind of consolation with a lowly pox-ridden dying actor?

Elizabeth Rex by Timothy Findley at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff

CST casts Diane D’Aquila as Elizabeth and it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the part (she previously assumed the titular role when Elizabeth Rex premiered in 2000 at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada – this is a revised version that lops off about 25 minutes from the original.) D’Aquila renders the queen in all her complexities, her vanity and her strength of character, her iron will and her despair at the death of the man she loves mixed with her contempt for men in general. D’Aquila, with her white makeup, also bears a startling resemblance to the actual queen as portrayed in surviving paintings. Whatever the deficiencies of the play, the audience should be grateful for this actress’s powerful three-dimensional performance.

D’Aquila’s co-star is Steven Sutcliffe, another Stratford veteran, who brings Ned alive with his fear of his approaching death and his challenge to the queen to climb down from her throne and become a woman. Sutcliffe makes considerable dramatic capital out of Ned’s blend of fear and audacity.

Kevin Gudahl plays Shakespeare as a working writer, an urbane and intelligent man not aware, at least outwardly, that he will go down as the greatest writer in the history of the English language. It’s a well-judged performance minus any affectation.

Elizabeth Rex by Timothy Findley at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff

The rest of the ensemble plays robust character roles: Roderick Peeples is first rate as the rollicking and Falstaffian Luddy Beddoes and Andrew Rothenberg makes a strong impression as the Irish actor Jack Edmund, a man not afraid to show the queen that he’s an Irishman first and last – he is in total sympathy with Ireland’s rebellion against the queen.  In other supporting roles, there is outstanding work by Eric Parks, Matt Farabee, Bradley Armacost, Mary Ann Thebus, Brenda Barrie, and Torrey Hanson. And special props to Jude Roche inside a realistic furry costume as a pet bear who turns out to be one of the most sympathetic figures in the play (Lindsay Jones designed the sound, including the vivid bear growls).

Elizabeth Rex by Timothy Findley at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff

Elizabeth Rex, under Barbara Gaines’s resourceful directing, is full of stirring moments leavened by ribald comedy, but overall the play falls short of its promise. After all, when we see Shakespeare and Elizabeth I together, we expect drama at a, well, Shakespearean level.

photos by Liz Lauren

Elizabeth Rex
Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Courtyard Theater
ends on January 22, 2012
for tickets, visit Chicago Shakes

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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