Gender and sexuality in conflict in 'Elizabeth Rex'

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By Doug Deuchler

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The 45th season of Oak Park Festival Theatre opened this week with a stunning production of the beautiful, many-layered modern play, Elizabeth Rex, a witty and poignant two-act work by Canadian playwright Timothy Findley. Strongly directed by Barbara Zahora, the play is totally in period and inspired by historic reality, but it also covers topics of gender and sexuality, which are not often associated with the Elizabethan era. It's quite fascinating.

The play is based, to some extent, on historic fact. Queen Elizabeth I pulls an all-nighter before her lover, the Earl of Essex, is to be executed at dawn for treason. He had led an attempted coup against the government, so Elizabeth herself has sentenced him to death. He awaits his fate in the Tower of London. To take her mind off his impending beheading, she enjoys a command performance of William Shakespeare's comedy Much Ado About Nothing. After the show, she visits the royal barn where the actors are lodging for the night due to a curfew. It is feared there may be some sort of riot because of the imminent beheading of Essex.

Wendy Robie is terrific as Queen Elizabeth. She's vain, imperious, as well as totally, emotionally devastated. She is agonized by, and struggles with, her decision to execute Essex. Only Elizabeth can commute his sentence, but to do so would be a fatal show of womanly weakness.

Ned, a gay actor renowned for playing the major female roles for the company, is strongly played by Nika Kourtis. He is dying of syphilis, given to him by a lover who died in battle. This "pox" is a clear reference to HIV/AIDS.

Ned and the Queen set up a dueling sort of relationship. He becomes a challenge to her. There are many heated exchanges. His approaching death makes him extremely bold in talking to her. He's got nothing to lose by provoking Queen Elizabeth.

She acts more like a man; he lives as a woman.

"I killed the woman in my heart," she says, "so that England might prevail." Her sovereignty demands that she be strong, decisive and brutal. She's had to suppress the feminine side of herself.

Can he teach the crusty queen how to access her emotions again?

William Shakespeare is played, in understated low profile, by Michael Joseph Mitchell. The Bard is working on a new script — a tragedy about Antony and Cleopatra, much derived from Essex and Elizabeth.

Jack Hickey is warm and funny playing an aging stage fool. Belinda Bremner is delightfully batty as a quirky costume mistress with poor eyesight. A haughty Irish actor with a chip on his shoulder, who sympathizes with the Irish rebellion against the Queen is played by Elliot Baker. Christopher M. Walsh plays a lecherous, Falstaffian actor named Luddy. The Countess of Henslowe, an aging lady-in-waiting, is Barbara Figgins.

A huge but well-behaved brown bear, rescued by Ned from one of the "bear baiting" events the Elizabethans were so fond of, now lumbers about the barn. Several of the Festival interns portray this beast at different performances. On opening night, Max Martin did the honors.

August Forman and Sam Theis play young performers in the company. Brandon Wright (Cecil), Tyshon Boone (Matt), and Daniella Pereira (Stanley) are also deserving of recognition. The angular stable set is designed by Nicholas James Schwartz.

Elizabeth Rex has many layers. It is well paced and enjoyable. Though there is nothing offensive in the dialogue — for the most part — it probably won't hold young children's attention. Bring them to the Shakespeare follow-up play, Much Ado About Nothing, starting in late July instead.

See Oak Park Festival Theatre's "Elizabeth Rex," Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m. and Sundays, 7 p.m., through July 21 outside at Austin Gardens, 167 Forest Ave., Oak Park. Bring chairs, blankets, picnics and adult beverages. Light snacks and soft drinks sold at concessions. Set up allowed one hour prior to performance. $35; $28, seniors; $15, students with ID; free, under 12 and dogs. Tickets/more: oakparkfestival.com, 708-300-9396.

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