William Shakespeare, the greatest and best playwright in the world, the one whom we know the least about, provides an opportunity that imaginative writers cannot pass up. We have 38 plays, a couple hundred poems of varying length and… nothing. A handful of receipts and legal documents, a sketch by a tourist, a single portrait (and if you listen to the Oxfordians, maybe not even that). History is begging us to fill in the holes.
This is the challenge taken up by Canadian writer Timothy Findley in Elizabeth Rex, now playing at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. The play takes place the notorious night before Queen Elizabeth I executes her lover, the Earl of Essex, for attempting a coup against her. We know that that night, Elizabeth went to a Shakespeare play—but not which one. That’s all Findley needed. In his version of the events, Elizabeth goes to pass the excruciating night with Shakespeare’s actors. The central relationship of the play is between the queen and the actor who played Beatrice, the fictional Ned Lowenscroft, who is dying of “pox” (Findley’s not-so-subtle HIV reference), has nothing to lose, and can stand up to the Queen in a way no one else in the world can. The idea is that Ned, who has devoted his life to feminine emotion by playing women on stage, can teach the queen how to access her emotions again, and that she can teach him how to face his death with dignity. “If you teach me how to be a woman, I’ll teach you how to be a man,” says Elizabeth.
This complicated premise is totally ingenious, but its intellectuality is quite dangerous as well. It often comes off as over-didactic—the AIDS reference certainly doesn’t help—and what could be an incredibly complex character relationship often feels more like a college seminar on gender. The writing is mostly fantastic. What’s getting in the way is the sometimes over-simplification that creeps in.
Perhaps it would land stronger if you believed Steven Sutcliffe’s performance as Ned a little more. Despite the fact that he was dying, it took me a real leap of faith to accept the way that he treated the queen. There’s this assumption in the theater world that when we say what we mean to people it’s commendable and brave and fearless—but that honesty has to cost the actor something for it to be brave. I never got the sense that there was much at stake for Sutcliffe, except his own death. That indulgence is a huge part of the character, but it’s a tricky balance to strike between playing an indulgent character and being an indulgent actor, and he didn’t quite get it.
That is not to say that the central relationship wasn’t interesting to watch (and more interesting to think about), because it was both. Diane D’Aquila straight from Stratford (God Save Her) stands up to a long line of Elizabeths with her power, anger, wit, and especially, her vulnerability. It’s supported by a great cast of Chicago Shakes veterans and newcomers alike, both the charming supporting actors and the design team. Kevin Gudahl’s understated, reserved performance as Shakespeare makes you feel like you’re getting the inside knowledge on how Shakespeare wrote his stuff. His Shakespeare really resonates emotionally too; I found my eye wandering over to watch him read Plutarch or stare into the void.
The design elements almost function like characters in the play, especially the beautiful costumes and the makeup, a feat rarely achieved with as much success and clarity.
You’ll never argue with Barbara Gaines’s flawless conception of the event. Gaines, the founder of Chicago Shakes, clearly has a great time creating the lives of Shakespeare et al, to whom she has devoted her entire life. You know she’s got to be thrilled to have a life-size bear on stage, for instance, and even if it’s totally gratuitous, it puts a smile on your face.
But just as I kept waiting for someone to exit pursued by said bear, you’ll find yourself unfulfilled in the climax department. What should be a 90-minute one act loses steam and vitality after intermission, after which you wish you had bought a beer. That unfortunately leaves me feeling like I just experienced a brilliantly set up, incredibly talented delivery of an intellectual exercise with great production values—not a play. What could utterly strike you dead just gets inside your head. Admittedly, that’s a hell of a lot farther than a lot of stuff out there makes it, but you know these great artists are capable of more.
Elizabeth Rex runs at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater out on Navy Pier until January 22. Get tickets at www.chicagoshakes.com.
Photos Courtesy of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.