It has been a great year for Chicago Shakespeare Theater with a string of excellent productions starting with As You Like It a year ago. Since then I have enjoyed three tremendous plays which, while not written by the Bard, have been worthy of appearing on the stage that bears his name. Yesterday I attended the current Chicago Shakespeare production, Elizabeth Rex written by Timothy Findley and directed by Barbara Gaines.
This is a play that imagines an encounter between the Queen and Will near the end of her reign. The night before her beloved Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, is to be beheaded for treason, Queen Elizabeth commands the Lord Chamberlain's Men to perform a play at her palace. The Queen has sentenced Essex to death—and only she can pardon him. With the threat of rioting in the streets, a curfew is imposed and the actors must be lodged that night in the royal stables. Desperately needing distraction from the fateful night's events, Elizabeth seeks out the company of Shakespeare and the actors. But it is not Shakespeare who commands her attention as much as does Ned Lowenscroft, the actor she has seen portray Shakespeare's leading female roles. Covered in bruises and sores, Ned is dying of syphilis—giving him a fool's license as he engages the Queen in verbal combat through the night while she awaits the morning.
The play is filled with wit and wordplay, and Findley's characters, in addition to Will and the Queen, include a sort of a fool in the person of Luddy Beddoes and the troupe of which Ned, played with a passionate intensity by Steven Sutcliffe, is the most important member. It was a pleasure to see Steven and Diane D'Aquila on the Chicago stage reprising their roles first performed in Canada at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. It was also a pleasure to see one of my favorite Chicago actors, Kevin Gudahl, performing admirably as Will Shakespeare. The play held our rapt attention and the afternoon flew by as we watched in wonder at the emotional twists and turns on stage. Findley's play was an excellent choice well played by this company.