texts&beheadings/ElizabethR, created and directed by Karin Coonrod, draws on the letters, prayers, and speeches of the queen who reigned in Shakespeare’s time. A fitting choice for the Folger Theatre, whose library of resources provided much of the source material for the play. The production was developed with Compagnia de’ Colombari, an international collective dedicated to cultural juxtaposition.
Over the course of four movements, the play draws heavily on this source material, with scripted material (alternatingly contemporary and not) to bridge the gaps in what’s pulled from the texts.
Texts&beheadings is more like portraiture than plot. Each movement announces its theme at the outset, and features a different rendering of Queen Elizabeth. This is how, over the course of a relatively brief play, we come to witness four performers (in order: Cristina Spina, Monique Barbee, Ayeje Feamster, and Juliana Francis-Kelly) alternating in the regal role. When not on the throne, the other three actors serve as a chorus – speaking sometimes together, sometimes among one another, and sometimes word by word to trace parts of Elizabeth’s life and reign.
What emerges is a portrait in fractals. This kaleidoscopic view grants the audience more viewpoints to consider, but it also calls our attention to what is done with history – how it might be reframed in the eye of its reader, how historical figures exist, to some degree, in the collective imagination. Each movement dives into its theme and splashes around there for a while – featuring a game, like the shredding of one’s mourning clothes, and songs performed a capella. We see moments from her childhood, deaths she’s been witness to, the closest she came to marrying. We see the events that shaped her into the persona she became, and we see other people’s impressions of her based on what she does.
Part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival
September 19 – October 4
201 East Capitol Street SE
Washington, DC 20003
1 hour, 20 minutes, no intermission
Details and Tickets
Smartly, the four representations of the queen could not be any more different in tone, or portrayed by more different performers. We see in turns an Elizabeth with an Italian accent, a graceful and subdued Elizabeth, one powerful and angry, and a queen resistant to and resilient from those who seek to control her. It works almost like a Picasso painting, full of attention to perspectives and angles.
The set is deceptively simple: Four high-backed, gilded chairs. On the Folger stage, with precise attention to lighting and a choreography of configurations which bring the chairs to different uses, this is all that’s needed. Indeed, all of the design choices – from the four distinctly different mourning gowns to the haunting sound effect of a dropping guillotine blade – serve to keep the concept and the history at the forefront. Everything in this work seems malleable.
Is it the most dynamic, active production you will see over the course of the Women’s Voices Festival? Probably not. But neither does it aspire to be. What it does attempt – explorations in hybridity, history, and stylization — it does well, and it serves to show how biographical texts can granted life onstage in imaginative and innovative ways.
texts&beheadings/ElizabethR . written and directed by Karin Coonrod . Featuring Monique Barbee, Ayeja Feamster, Juliana Francis-Kelly and Christina Spina . Dramaturgy and Scenic Design: John Conklin . Music Composition: Gina Leishman . Costume Design: Oana Botez . Lighting Design: Peter Ksander . Produced by Folger Theatre . Reviewed by Jennifer Clements.