By Timothy Findley
Directed by Barbara Gaines
A Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Chicago
Fictional drama deals with gender roles of an actor and a queen
Set in England in 1601 in the barn of Queen Elizabeth I, Timothy Findley’s Elizabeth Rex dramatizes the role reversal debate between a sovereign queen who acts more like a man and a male actor who lives as a woman. Utilizing a realistic barn set (design by Daniel Ostling) and period perfect costumes (design by Mariann S. Verheyen), director Babara Gaines tape two Canadian actors to play the principal roles: Diane D’Aquila as Elizabeth I and Steven Sutcliffe as Ned Lowenscroft. Surrounding these tow brilliant players are a group of Chicago talents: Kevin Gudahl as William Shakespeare, Mary Ann Thebus as Kate Tardwell, Roderick Peeples as Luddy, Bradley Armacost as Percy, Eric Parks as Matthew and Matt Farabee as Harry and Brenda Barrie as Mary Stanley.
“On the eve of the beheading of her court favorite and rumored lover, the Earl of Essex, Queen Elizabeth was entertained with a royal command performance by Shakespeare and his company (of Much Ado About Nothing). Longing for distraction, the Queen visits her stables where the actors are lodged for the night. There she finds the man who plays Shakespeare’s leading ladies (here as Beatrice), and in their passionate confrontation, the actor and his Queen come to shocking revelations about sexuality, identity and love.” (from the press notes)
That simple summary thrives as we meet the quirky 17th Century thespians led by William Shakespeare (played understated by Kevin Gudhal) and the rag-tag actors that included a drunkard, an old man living in the past and a quirky seamstress and a dying actor more woman than man. When the queen arrives, Ned is her outspoken opponent since his eminent death from the pox allows him the freedom to say whatever comes to his mind. The debate rages on as the two engage in verbal debate. Elizabeth hides her female side as a mechanism for sovereign survival – ruling as a man works for her. Ned has played woman all his life in Shakespeare’s plays and as a gay man feels more comfortable as a woman.
During the night before her past lover is to die, Elizabeth hides her female emotions that Ned senses she needs to reveal. Elizabeth detects that Ned wants to become more ‘manly’ before his death. This fascinating work deftly deals with gender roles, sexuality, power politics, forgiveness and personal integrity. What makes this play so forceful are the performances by Diane D’Aquila as the crusty queen and Steven Sutcliffe as the effeminate actor. The encounter between these two is raw, honest and heartfelt. Add the subtext that finds Elizabeth skeptical of the new play (Antony and Cleopatra) by Shakespeare because she finds the Egyptian Queen a tad too much like her and Findley’s drama enchants us further. Findley’s fiction is quite believable and sure makes for a compelling story. The acting here is amazing and the characters are rooted in truth. Kudos to Barbara Gaines for mounting such a refreshingly worth play.
At Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, Chicago, IL, call 3120595-5600, www.chicagoshakes.com/rex, tickets are $44 – $75, Tuesdays at 7:30 pm, Wednesdays at 1 & 7:30 pm, Thursdays & Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 3 & 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm, running time is 2 hours, 10 minutes with intermission, through January 22, 2012