Elizabeth Rex is a whimsical post-show talkback between the legendary Elizabeth I of England, William Shakespeare and his troupe of actors in a royal barn. It’s a play within a play and Keegan Theatre has achieved an amazingly lively staging for its regional premiere in Washington D.C.
Here’s the frame: It’s 1616 on the day of Shakespeare’s death at 52 years old. Rob Leembruggen as the soliloquizing bard is an inveterate, world-weary book reader who reflects on the past he wants to relive. “I played so many roles…I failed to live it. Now it’s over,” he says poignantly. But wait. First, he’s got a story to tell us before he departs with earth.
Will flashes back to 1601, 15 years before, when The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, his company of repertory players, emerge fresh from enacting Much Ado About Nothing for distraught Elizabeth I, (Kerry Waters Lucas) who needs distraction. Under a curfew, the actors are bedding down in the royal barn several hours before the execution of the 2nd Earl of Essex for treason. Intrigue lurks everywhere. In a sense, Much Ado is an apt choice for performance, in that, in the context of Elizabethan terms, nothing can be translated to mean “noting” or “eavesdropping.” We are eavesdropping on an historical moment. Or at least, we are party to the bedeviled liaison between the aging monarch and the impulsive young rebel, her last great love, a man younger than the queen by almost 30 years.
But when the queen arrives to banter combatively with The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, we feel the Earl’s presence. Shakespeare’s star actor Ned Lowenscroft (Eric Lucas), a young man who is gay and only plays female roles, is dying from the “pox,” or syphilis and has nothing to lose. So he’s the one who openly challenges the queen’s supremacy. The play reaches one of its peaks as Elizabeth and Ned deliver a face-off duel of wits, filled with electricity. “If you will teach me how to be a woman, I will teach you how to be a man.” Elizabeth says.
Kerry Waters Lucas gives an electrifying, variegated performance as the unsexed Elizabeth I, ranging from the sublime to increasingly humanized, earthy and maternal. Eric Lucas as Ned, who dares defiance, is equally androgynous and thrilling as her foil, as master and servant come to understand each other. Even though Act II bogs down a bit – the only flaw in a well-honed script – the question of whether Elizabeth will pardon Essex keeps us in suspense. Her masculine side must prevail for her survival. And Lucas in her nuanced underplaying makes it evident that Elizabeth is in anguish, without resorting to shrill melodrama.
The Elizabethan Age was a time of great artistic freedom, and director Susan Marie Rhea captures that spirit by making wise choices. With a large cast of seventeen, Rhea keeps the flow spontaneous and in focus for what could have been a static, talky, overlong production. The satiric moments in Act I play well. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, who quote lines from their repertoire of Shakespearean roles, literally fall all over themselves with awe when Elizabeth makes her presence known. Actor Tim Lynch as the clownish Percy, and Kevin Adams as the lecherous Luddy, the friar, shine in their knock-about moments. And Kerri Rambow, the almost-blind seamstress, Tardy, has a hilarious recognition scene with the queen. Even a bear (William Aitken) has a chance to get into the act, as justified by a program note about the Elizabethan obsession with bear baiting.
The play raises a lot of puzzling questions and clever puns, and that includes the title. Rex alludes to the power of a king. If Elizabeth is perceived as a woman, then technically, she should be labeled Regina for queen. But this is a play about choices. What does it mean to be a woman? How is feminine different from masculine? Can she kill without remorse?
The plucky queen long ago, based on her dysfunctional family history, decided private passion was not for her. But overall, to an amazing degree, Waters Lucas gives us an Elizabeth who retains her cool control above all. She allows brash public passion and freedom of speech from her upstart subjects; even from Will Shakespeare, who admits to writing about subversive threats to thrones as in Anthony and Cleopatra.
Back to that frame story when Shakespeare, a bit nostalgic, longing to relive his life, tells us he “led an uneventful life,” another conundrum. He did? See this delightful little fantasy that won a Governor General’s Award at the Stratford Festival, Ontario, Canada in 2000, and decide for yourselves. You won’t be sorry.
By Timothy Findley
Directed by Susan Marie Rhea
A regional premiere, produced by The Keegan Theatre at Church Street Theater
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
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