Timothy Findley's play, Elizabeth Rex , playing now in an Off-Broadway transfer at Center Stage, is an achievement. Presented here in New York by the Playwright's Guild of Canada and the theater ensemble Nicu's Spoon, the innovative yet lengthy production features two standout actors and a somewhat hearty supporting cast. Elizabeth Rex is set in a barn on the evening before Queen Elizabeth I's lover, Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, and his royal compatriot, the Earl of Southampton, are due to be beheaded for treason.
In the barn are William Shakespeare and a group of actors who have just finished a performance of Much Ado About Nothing for the Queen, featuring the best and most seasoned actor of Shakespeare's female roles at the time, Ned Lowenscraft (Michael Digioia), as Beatrice.
Due to public rioting in the streets in anticipation of the upcoming appearences at the guillotine, the male actors are stuck for the evening in the barn. The sole female present is the company's half-blind seamstress (Rebecca Challis).
That is, until a lonely and anguished Queen Elizabeth I (Stephanie Barton-Farcas) appears with two of her ladies-in-waiting (Melanie Horton and Ruth Kulerman), to distract herself with a cup of ale and a probing conversation with Lowenscraft that turns into a profound jousting session on the question of gender.
The Queen, whose position as England's monarch has required her to sublimate her most feminine qualities, says to the womanly Lowenscaft, "If you will teach me how to be a woman, I will teach you how to be a man." And the actor, perhaps because he is slowly dying of the pox, dares to tell the Queen the truth of her situation as well as the truth of his own personal story.
Both Barton-Farcas and Digioia do a terrific job, subtle and animated and heartfelt, and it is the moments in the play when these two powerhouses go head-to-head that are the most interesting. Though the play could easily be clipped by 15 minutes, the scenerio itself and much of its heightened language is extremely clever.
The costumes, particularly those of Queen Elizabeth, as chosen by Rien Schlect, are gorgeous. And the set is very simple and effective, save a jarring teak tray-table that seems oddly modern and misplaced.
The show's only setback is that certain members of the supporting cast tend to overact, and one, in particular, distinctly underplays, which lends a slightly disjointed feel to ensemble moments.
Scott Nogi does a fine job as Shakespeare, as does the charming Bill Galarno playing elderly actor Percy Gower. Horton and Kulerman fare the best among the rest of the supporting cast. In his turn as the Bear, Sammy Mena also deserves recognition.