Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Queen Rules: ELIZABETH REX at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival

Thomas Quinn as Shakespeare and Deborah Staples as Elizabeth in Elizabeth Rex
Timothy Findley's Elizabeth Rex serves as the linchpin for this summer's Illinois Shakespeare Festival, with the other two choices -- Much Ado About Nothing and Antony and Cleopatra -- revolving around this Shakespeare-centric but not Shakespeare-written play. Festival Artistic Director Kevin Rich's plan includes using the actors who play Elizabeth Rex's characters to people the other two plays, with Deborah Staples playing Elizabeth the queen as well as Cleopatra the queen, and Christopher Prentice taking on both Ned Lowenscroft, the actor who plays Beatrice in Elizabeth Rex's backstage world, and Beatrice herself in the full production of Much Ado. It's a clever conceit, interweaving threads from all three plays about the nature of power and the nature of gender.

Findley was a well-known and very well-regarded Canadian novelist and playwright with two Governor's General awards to his credit, one for a novel called The Wars in 1977 and one for the play Elizabeth Rex in 2000. Like much of Findley's work, Elizabeth Rex takes a look at issues of sexuality and gender, as he imagined Queen Elizabeth visiting Shakespeare and his troupe after a performance of Much Ado About Nothing, intending to distract herself from the imminent execution of her former favorite, the Earl of Essex, for plotting to overthrow her. While biding her time with the playwright and his actors, Elizabeth muses on who she is and why she is what she is, sparring a bit with Ned, someone who has made a career of playing Shakespeare's female characters. He is a man who is very adept at playing women, while Elizabeth is a woman who has had to suppress the feminine parts of herself in order to rule England. And they've both had rather disastrous love affairs with tempestuous men.

The script of Elizabeth Rex provides fascinating characters -- deeply written, deeply flawed -- for actors to sink their teeth into. The Illinois Shakespeare Festival cast, under the director of Paula Suozzi, offers strong, intelligent portrayals of the various personalities that make up Shakespeare's troupe. They are lead by Deborah Staples, a standout whenever she's on stage. Staples gives us an Elizabeth who is regal and fierce tempered by serious doubts and some measure of sadness at what she's had to give up to be where she is. Staples is sharp, flinty and magnificent.

In some ways, Prentice has been handed a more modern character to play. His Ned, who once loved a military man and now is very ill because of it, would not be out of place in 20th century works about gay men whose sex lives came with a high price. He knows that life is unfair, that his own days are fleeting, but he isn't going out without a fight. Prentice does well with the jagged edges and mood shifts of this dangerous man, someone who is admired and loved when he exhibits the feminine part of himself on stage, but reviled when he shows it in his personal life.

Others in the cast who shine include Thomas Anthony Quinn, whose Shakespeare is reflective and wise, but also unsure and creatively stymied at times, with a fully drawn portrait of a quick mind and a quick wit; Norman Moses, who couldn't be more delightful or more engaging as an older member of the troupe, someone who is reduced to playing the clown whether he wants to or not; Natalie Blackman, doing fine work as batty costume mistress Tardy; Cyndee Brown offering the very picture of an aging aristocrat as Elizabeth's lady-in-waiting Henslowe; and Ian Scarlato, who manages to create a full and sympathetic character from inside a massive bear suit.

When I saw Elizabeth Rex at Chicago Shakespeare Theater in 2012, I brought up the idea of playing it in repertory with Much Ado About Nothing and Antony and Cleopatra, since those two plays are discussed so often in the script, but also with The Winter's Tale, to give the bear more to do. Now I've decided that someone needs to write a play just for the bear, to really give him a showcase. Shakespeare is gone and Findley is gone, but... Maybe Tom Stoppard would like to fashion an existential tale around what the bear was up to when he wasn't chasing wayward people around Bohemia.

By Timothy Findley

Illinois Shakespeare Festival
at Ewing Cultural Center

Director: Paula Suozzi
Costume Designer: Lauren Lowell
Scenic Designer: Kristin Ellert
Lighting Designer: Sarah EC Maines
Music Director/Composer: Shannon O'Neill
Stage Manager: Andrew Blevins

Cast: Deborah Staples, Christopher Prentice, Thomas Anthony Quinn, Matt Daniels, Norman Moses, Fredric Stone, Natalie Blackman, Colin Lawrence, Jack Dwyer, Ron Roman, Faith Servant, Cyndee Brown, Timuchin Aker, Ian Scarlato, Michael Pine, Robert Michael Johnson, Joey Banks, Wigasi Brant, Bethany Hart, Colin Trevino-Odell, Phillip Ray Guevara.

Remaining performances: July 23, 26, 27 and 31; August 2, 6, and 8.

Running time: 2:30, with one 15-minute intermission.

For ticket information, click here.

Note: The Illinois Shakespeare Festival provided a press ticket for a preview performance of their production of Elizabeth Rex.

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