'Elizabeth's' Barnburnin' Good Time
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Would you believe that Shakespeare and his players once entertained Queen Elizabeth in a barn? That historical fantasy is roughly the premise of "Elizabeth Rex," the stately costume drama that's being acted with wit and poise at the Church Street Theater.
"I require distraction," declares the queen, shocking the Bard and his men by gliding in after their performance of "Much Ado About Nothing." Distraction indeed: One of her court favorites, the Earl of Essex, is in the Tower of London, slated for execution at dawn by her command.
The city is under curfew to prevent protests against the sentencing of the popular earl (thus the late-night sequestering of actors in the barn). Because the earl not only has loyalists among the actors but was also perhaps Elizabeth's lover, the politics and emotions surrounding his fate do not go unexplored. The queen and these actors improvise around themes of love, death and governance as the dreadful hour approaches.
"Elizabeth Rex" was penned not quite a decade ago by Timothy Findley, a Canadian actor-turned-writer who died in 2002. The script is ripe with plummy lines and rhetorical one-upsmanship; the language is consistently alive, which means the actors say things that sound dashing even when Findley's ideas grow ponderous.
The Keegan Theatre's assured production is anchored by Kerry Waters Lucas's performance as Elizabeth, a turn that's serene, biting and persuasively in command. It's the familiar Elizabeth of pop portrayals now, the woman shrewdly but sometimes uncomfortably smothered under the crown. Lucas rules the stage well, aided by director Susan Marie Rhea and an ensemble that's frequently arranged in postures of awestruck deference.
One actor doesn't defer: Ned, the fiery gay man who played Beatrice in "Much Ado." He is pox-riddled and doomed to die, and thus feels no need to be polite when he disagrees with the romantically disloyal queen. Ned sounds like the author's voice, and to the play's detriment his is a shrill one. Eric Lucas (Kerry's real-life husband) gets trapped in the character's one-dimensional anger and in the crudely drawn gender war Findley tried to provoke. It boils down to this: Can the male actor who plays a woman onstage teach anything to a queen who acts so manfully in real life?
That essential battle never gains much traction, yet the stylish performance manages to offer its share of delight. Rhea's cast is well-balanced, with the nicely understated Robert Leembruggen -- emphasizing the Bard's keen observation -- getting things off to an intriguing start as a dying Shakespeare. (The play is framed as Shakespeare's flashback, a tale he could never tell.)
Findley was canny enough to wrap bawdy bits between the references to Shakespearean sonnets and plays -- the Elizabeth and Earl of Essex situation plainly inspires "Antony and Cleopatra" -- and the ensemble clearly enjoys creating the backstage camaraderie of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, joking and lounging on a set that co-opts the Church Street Theater's exposed beams to evoke an English barn. The show grows long as the argument turns into a bit of a wreck, but it'll easily do for audiences in the mood for a plucky Elizabethan fantasy.
Elizabeth Rex, by Timothy Findley. Directed by Susan Marie Rhea. Set, George Lucas; lights, Dan Martin; costumes, Kelly Peacock; sound Tony Angelini. With Jon Townson, Tim Lynch, Michael Innocenti, Chris Dinolfo, Daniel Steinberg, John Robert Keena, Kerri Rambow, Kevin Adams, William Aitken, Tiffany Gardner, Jane Petkofsky, Mark A. Rhea, Trudi Olivetti, Megan Thrift and Elliott Kashner. About two hours and 40 minutes.