What if Shakespeare introduced Queen Elizabeth (a great woman who ruled like a king) to the actor Ned Lowenscroft (a man who portrayed the great female roles of the day)? Nicu's Spoon's Elizabeth Rex explores the intersection of desire and personal destiny in a raucous production that lacks nuance and consistency, but still manages to tell a pretty good story.
Reviewed by Claire Epstein
Queen Elizabeth's lover, the Earl of Essex, has been sentenced to death for crimes of treason. She has the power to save him, but knows it would be political suicide to do so. On the eve of his execution, the Queen seeks distraction from this burden of power by surrounding herself with the company of Shakespeare's actors. But what begins as an evening of diverting entertainment quickly transforms into a desperate confrontation between the Queen and her subjects. Will she grant a pardon? And how can she live with herself if she chooses not to?
Elizabeth Rex is a work of historical fiction by Canadian playwright Timothy Findley that self-consciously explores themes of power, gender, identity, and the inevitability of loss. At its heart is the struggle of two misunderstood characters who seek to understand one another: Ned Lowenscroft, the flamboyant actor who has based his theatrical career on the portrayal of Shakespeare's great female leads, and the domineering Queen Elizabeth, the monarch who has sacrificed her traditional place in society as a wife and mother in order to retain control of the throne. Having seen Lowenscroft play the part of a woman many times, the Queen is fascinated with the actor, and envies him for the feminine grace he so easily embodies on stage. Meanwhile, Lowenscroft feels helpless in the face of the fatal venereal disease he has contracted, and (secretly) wishes he could master his fear as the Queen has. "If you teach me how to be a woman," the Queen says to Lowenscroft, "I will teach you how to be a man." (Shakespeare, meanwhile, doubles as character and omniscient narrator, stepping aside to allow the story he never had the nerve to write to unfold on stage.)
Findley's investigation of the interplay between gender and power is timely. (Hillary Clinton and her bid for the presidential nomination come to mind.) Do women have to consciously imitate men in order to lead? Will the taboo against men expressing fear and sadness ever be lifted? And what if--despite our best efforts--we can't forgive each other (or ourselves) for deviating from the norm? The Queen refuses to show Lowenscroft any sympathy for his illness. After striking him in the face, she derides him for being submissive. Lowenscroft, in turn, chastises her for being cold and heartless. When her stoic veneer eventually cracks—a slight catch in her voice belies her true emotions—he pounces on this sign of her weakness with a smug, caustic satisfaction.
While the characters in this play are complex and the dialogue is often profound, Findley's script is also littered with traps that the actors have trouble avoiding. Shifts in tone and mood are sudden and extreme, and character motivations are often cryptic. The script teems with over-the-top dramatic devices, and the production milks them for all they’re worth. When two characters lunge at each other to fight, half the cast struggles to hold them back. When newcomers suddenly discover the Queen in their midst, they collapse to the ground with a yelp and have trouble rising. On at least three separate occasions, a mighty slap across the face is delivered for dramatic effect. At the climax of the confrontation between Lowenscroft and the Queen, they take turns threatening one another with a sword while the rest of cast looks on in abject horror.
Exaggerated devices like these require a sensitive director, and while Joanne Zipay uses quiet moments of reverie to create memorable stage pictures (such as the breathtaking moment when the Queen removes her wig to reveal a bald, powdered head, or the delicate tension of the scene in which Lowenscroft washes the stark red and white make-up from the Queen’s face), she fails to rein in her actors during chaotic ensemble scenes when careful timing and a light touch could have made all the difference.
Visually, Stephanie Barton-Farcus triumphs as the Queen, with a regal posture and fine features that are well-enhanced by designer Rien Schlecht and assistant Abeer Al-Azzawi. Here is the image of Queen Elizabeth from our collective unconscious: the high, stiff collar; the bright red wig; the white and gold satin dress, full skirt ballooning at the hips. But save for a few transcendent moments in the role, Barton-Farcus struggles to find balance between three basic modes: playful and witty, shaking with fury, or cold and restrained.
As Ned Lowenscroft, Michael Diogioia shines in moments of poignant soliloquy, but his campy style contrasts sharply with that of Barton-Farcus. His performance often strains toward emotional extremes and it lacks the kind of moment-to-moment continuity that the part requires. However, this disconnect disappears in a captivating, redemptive scene late in the play when Lowenscroft draws the Queen into a spiritual communion with her departed lover.
The meeting of Ned Lowenscroft and Queen Elizabeth truly is a fascinating 'what if?' Here, it reveals Shakespeare's shortcomings as a product of his own time, and empowers characters who haven't historically been given voice. Nicu's Spoon's raucous production lacks nuance and consistency, but it still manages to tell a pretty good story that grapples with problems of gender identity, desire, and personal destiny.
Elizabeth Rex by Timothy Findley, directed by Joanne Zipay
Presented by Nicu’s Spoon at the Spoon Theater (38 W. 38th Street)
Tickets: $14 - $18 (212) 352-3103, www.theatermania.com
April 2nd – April 19th , Wednesdays – Sundays at 8pm, & a 3pm matinee on Saturday the 19th
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