Elizabeth: Almost By Chance A Woman Is A Taxing Excursion

Here's the work of an internationally acclaimed playwright, actor, and producer, a political satirist since the 1940s who has been kicked out of the some of the best and worst theatrical institutions in Europe. No one can honestly dispute that some of his more famous material consitutes dead-on attacks at the Fascists, the Catholic Church, and the Establishment -- whether generally or in specific incarnations. Having been both celebrated and elbowed aside over the decades for his biting wit, Dario Fo's work finally earned him a Pulizter Prize for Literature in 1997.

The cast of Elizabeth

So with all the hints and buzz flitting around before the show, one takes a seat in the Ruby Theatre at the Complex and waits with smug anticipation for a royal skewering of the current political climate and the escalating American penchant for restrictive, self-satisfied Administrations in Washington. It's a big disappointment, then, to sit through an experience that is pablum bland, aimlessly targeted, and replete with more sputtering than skewering.

Big Mama

It's obvious from the first word that the production boasts some talented, enthusiastic actors. Melinda Kramer's a capella singing is a particular bright spot. AJ Schmitz's mannered portrayal of Elizabeth's chief spy, Egerton, is a joy to behold. Devin Ordoyne's few minutes in front of the audience offer a showcase for his winning ways. Ryan Fox's cross-dressing portrayal of Big Mama (why a man plays this role is never adequately explained) would tax the energy of most commedia dell'arte entertainers, and on balance deserves high praise. And Stacie Merken, inexplicably looking young when she's portraying Elizabeth near the end of her reign, ultimately overcomes all adversity and proves she's a more-than-capable actress who deserves better parts and/or direction than this.

But enthusiasm and talent are not enough to bridge the relevance gap between anything going on in modern America and an aging female monarch neurotically dealing with the guilt, angst, and public disapproval that flows from having murdered her sister, Mary. Perhaps there was more meat in the original Italian than one finds in this translation, by Ron Jenkins, which contains enough current American vernacular to suggest it's not quite a literal rendering of Fo's artfully honed language. Perhaps a more expansive staging would have allowed the characters more opportunity to win the audience's interest and attention.

Perhaps. But I'm betting that Fo would get more mileage out of a more coherent story line. Events in this play seem randomly strewn throughout the performance. There's little, if any, worthwhile development. And much of the action -- the business with the wooden horse; Elizabeth's interactions with her hunky young lover, Thomas; the whole assassination sub-plot -- seem included primarily to pad the play's running time.

This production would also profit from the simple recognition that the space is -- let's face it -- tiny. The cast's relentless playing to be heard in some imaginary last balcony precludes them from suggesting more relevance and insinuating more meaning into the material, and is just plain wearing on the ears. It's no wonder the three nice old ladies who sat next to me for the first act didn't return for the second.

'Elizabeth: Almost By Chance A Woman'
Written By Dario Fo, Translated By Ron Jenkins With Assistance By Arturo Corso
At The Ruby Theatre At The Complex
6476 Santa Monica Blvd. (At Wilcox),
Saturday April 23 Through Sunday May 8
Showtimes: Thursdays Through Saturdays At 8, Sundays At 7.
Reservations and Information: (310) 313-1910.

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