Elizabeth I, by Paul Foster; directed and designed by Liviu Ciulei; presented by the Acting Company.
With Lisa Barnes, Suzanne Costallos, Janet DeMay, Harriet Harris, Laura Hicks, J. Michael Butler, John Greenleaf, Matthew Kimbrough, Robert Lovietz, William McGlinn, Randle Mell, Richard Ooms, Tom Robbins, Charles Shaw-Robinson, Scott Walters and Claudia Wilkens.
At the Terrace Theater through Oct. 6.
Onto the stage of the Terrace Theater -- or, more precisely, onto the wine-red baseball bleachers erected above the stage of the Terrace Theater -- steps a clean-scrubbed troupe of young actor led by a witch, who commissions them to enact the story of Elizabeth I.
The tall, red-haired actress named to play Elizabeth promptly doles out the other key roles -- Sir Francis Bacon, the Earl of Leicester, Mary of Scotland, Philip of Spain et al -- and, with a flurry of narration, song and mime and a seemingly bottomless trunk of props and costumes, the extravaganza begins.
It is an extravaganza -- a bawdy, burlesque account of 16th century intrigue whose adventurousness and high spirits will delight theatergoers so long as they are disposed to overlook its hokiness and basic indifference to language.
When the French queen, Catherine, orders the massacre of untold thousands of Huguenots, an assortment of mutilated dolls are hurled down the sloped stage.When Elizabeth screws up her resolve to have her rebellious cousin Mary executed, the order is buried in a stack of other miscellaneous papers awaiting signatures, and her aides scream with delight as it slowly comes to the top of the pile. The burning of the Spanish Armada is staged with paper boats -- the English ones smaller and sleeker -- in a portable tank.
The two parties principally responsible for "Elizabeth I" are playwright Paul Foster, co-founder of the LaMama Theater in New York, and the Romanian Connection himself, Liviu Ciulei, who originally staged the play in his own language and capital city, where it has been playing in repertory for the last five years.
"Elizabeth I" also marks the start of a three-week Washington visit by the Acting Company, the touring group that sprang eight years ago from the Juilliard School's theater program and from the brow of its former chairman, John Houseman. Next week the company will follow with the 1920s melodrama "Broadway," by George Abbott and Philip Dunning, and the week after that with a punk-rock version of the Jacobean tragedy, "The White Devil."
The Acting Company makes a sickeningly cute entrance in "Elizabeth I," but before the evening is over the players establish themselves as welcome and versatile guests.
Lisa Banes, the mobile and stately Elizabeth, seems to know just how seriously she can take her role in the overall game-like context, in which the cast periodically drift in and out of their historical roles.
As Lord Burghley, Richard Ooms effects a wildly funny combination of haughty accent and Elvis-like gyrations, and he does equally astounding things in two smaller parts. As Catherine, Laura Hicks has something of Gilda Radner's sharp delivery and unself-conscious grace. And Charles Shaw-Robinson, who pops up in a wide array of roles, seems equally at home with a straight face or a leering one.
Through a good deal of "Elizabeth I," the talent of the company and the inventiveness of the director succeed in masking a certain nagging banality in the text. Here and there, scenes that are engaging manage also to be historically insightful. But eventually the senses tire and the mind awakes: and what it awakes to unfortunately, may be something like Elizabeth's paen to peace:
"If peace is eccentric," she proclaims, "then joy is eccentric; If joy is eccentric, then love is eccentric; if love is eccentric, then life itself is eccentric. If war is sane, and peace and joy and love and life itself are eccentric, then all eccentrics applaud yourselves!"
"Elizabeth I" evidently has captured the hearts of Romanian theatergoers, to whom it represents a first look at the free-form American theater of the 1960s and early '70s. Those for whom the experience is less of a novelty also may find it less of a thrill.