ELIZABETH I - At the Terrace Theater through Saturday

The Kennedy Center's idea of what will go into provinces is playing at the center now -- not in one of the big houses downstairs, but up in the little Terrace Theater -- in the early stages of a tour of America and Australia. Imagine Washington's not being counted as the provinces.

The first of three plays to be done in repertory, "Elizabeth I," a 1972 play written by Paul Foster and directed by Liviu Ciulei, the Romanian who has directed at Arena Stage in recent years, is there this week. Ciulei had previously taken a Romanian company on tour of America in the same play.

Starting October 8, the 1926 musical "Broadway" will be done for a week, and the week after that, "The White Devil," the John Webster classic written in 1608. These are the first ventures of this traveling repertory group, called the Acting Company, since it came under the sponsorship of the Kennedy Center.

"Elizabeth I" is a mixed-period play, in mixed forms such as fairy tale, faked improvisation and play-within-a-play, done in ruffs and T-shirts. Its chief joke is that Elizabeth was called the Virgin Queen, but it also features an archbishop being flagellated, an avaricious Jewish money-lender, numerous portrayals of lisping homosexuals, a man wearing big false breasts, dumb academicians, a comic stutterer and a reviled hunchback. Elizabeth leads the court in dancing rock'n'roll until someone yells, "Cheese it -- the Puritans!"

But now and then it pauses amid the attempts at buffoonery to wax sentimental about the British queen as representing "joy, love and life." In the first act, she tries to make up her mind whether to behead Mary, Queen of Scots, and in the second, she borrows money to set the Spanish Armada on fire, an act that according to a mimeographed insert in the program, made England "the most decisive nation in Europe," whatever that means.

The effect is that of a burlesque show, where famous characters are trotted out for the fun of making lewd remarks about them and stripping them at least of their dignity. But the management is somewhat unsure that the audience has the information to get the joke, as it depends on knowing, for instance, that Phillip II really was a king of Spain, and had some interest in Catholicism.

The style of the production is accordingly broad -- full of easily recognized types who mug and leer and drop their historic poses to swear at mishaps. But there seem to be at least two very good actors under that -- Richard Ooms and Laura Hicks -- and perhpas there are more, to be revealed in other productions or other provinces.