Bard Fest play catches the conscience of the Queen

By John Lyle Belden

One interesting thing I find in TV talk shows is the stories of celebrities who meet other celebrities, not as coworkers or equals, but as mutual fans, starstruck at each other. Imagine if the most powerful woman in the world were to meet an actor whose performance she found to be exceptional. It happened, and William Shakespeare was there to see it.

“Elizabeth Rex” is perhaps the greatest play Shakespeare could not have made, as the title character could easily have had his head removed to decorate the Tower of London. So it was left to acclaimed playwright Timothy Findley in 2000 to speculate and dramatize what happened on a fateful night in 1601 following a command performance – by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth I – of the Bard’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” 

You don’t have to know anything about that comedy to enjoy the Bard Fest adaptation of “Elizabeth Rex,” just know that in Shakespeare’s day, all women’s roles were played by male actors, and the rest of this drama’s set-up you can get from context. The setting is a barn at the estate where the play’s after-party (for aristocrats, not lowly actors) is being held, with everyone being stuck indoors as a curfew was declared by the Queen to maintain the peace before the Ash Wednesday execution at dawn of Robert, Earl of Essex – believed to be Elizabeth’s lover, but convicted of treason. 

The Lord Chamberlain’s Men grumble about their surroundings as they remove their makeup and tap a keg of warm ale, but the mood totally changes when their Royal visitor arrives. She is regal, the others reverent, but eventually all relax. “I shall require distraction,” Elizabeth declares.

The Queen (Holly Hathaway Thmpson) is quite impressed with the men who played female leads, especially Ned Lowenscroft (Jay C. Hemphill), the play’s Beatrice, and Harry Pearle (Scott Fleshood), who played Hero. She even remembers when Percy Gower (Alan Cloe) would show some leg in his skirts in years past (the old actor loves to reminisce, a recurring comic point). To Jack Edmond (Matthew Walls) who played Benedick (who verbally sparred with/wooed Beatrice in “Much Ado”), Elizabeth shows disdain, perhaps conflating the actor with the role, resenting his being Irish, or both. She also isn’t thrilled with big-mouthed Luddy (Matthew Socey) who she sees as little more than a living version of Falstaff (a great Bard Fest in-joke for those who have seen Socey in that role). Also on hand is Matt Welles (Anthony Logan), who is handy with a guitar; nearly blind seamstress Tardy (Susan Yeaw), always losing her glasses to comic effect; and a bear, which Lowenscroft had rescued.

Quite literally above it all, at his desk in the loft, is Shakespeare (Eric Bryant), working on his next play, “Antony and Cleopatra.” He feels at a loss for what words to put in legendary rulers’ mouths, so makes notes of things the Queen says. This proves problematic when she insists on seeing the script.

Attending Her Majesty are Lady Mary Stanley (Nikki Lynch) and Lord Robert Cecil (Abdul Hakim Shabazz). An attentive soldier enforcing the curfew (Andy Burnett) also appears, as well as, briefly, Countess Henslow (Afton Shepard) to plead in vain for the condemned’s life.

Much of this drama comes down to the interplay between Elizabeth and Lowenscroft, who, because he is dying, exercises a bit of license with the Queen. For her part, resolved to spend the night on the level of her subjects in the barn, she accepts being chided and contradicted – even touched – as the gay actor teaches the monarch, ever required to show a manly demeanor, to get in touch with her woman within. Thus, even in a very talented cast, Hemphill and Thompson stand out with extraordinary performances. 

Glenn L. Dobbs, a Bard Fest producer, directs from a script he adapted with Barbara Willis Sweete and Kate Miles. 

As has been noted, this at times intense drama is peppered with some great laugh-out-loud moments. It also gives a sense of what an important time this was in Elizabeth’s reign. The hour chimes periodically, bringing our players closer to the dawn, when our fantasia ends and true history resumes.

Remaining dates are Friday through Sunday, Nov. 12-14, at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave., in Lawrence. Get info and tickets at www.indybardfest.com and www.artsforlawrence.org

Full ‘Hamlet’ enriches familiar story

This Show is part of Bard Fest, central Indiana’s annual Shakespeare festival. Info and tickets at www.indybardfest.com.

By Wendy Carson

By now we all know the story of Hamlet. It’s one of Shakespeare’s most produced plays and you’ve likely seen more than one version of it. However, Doug Powers and the Carmel Theatre Company have chosen to give us a different take by giving us an almost entirely unabridged look at the play.

Before you balk at the 3-plus hour running length (with intermission), note that with these rarely acted scenes returned to the story, it just deepens the richness of the characters. It also brings the secondary plot forward (remember Norway?) bringing more closure and purpose to many of the characters.

Honestly, I had forgotten many of the scenes and speeches performed and was touched by the true beauty of not only their narrative but the language itself.

Also, the starkness of the stage and minimalist set pieces help remind you that this show is about listening to and understanding the characters. In order to fulfill this task, one must have great actors and Powers has outdone himself in procuring them.

Brian G. Hartz sizzles as Hamlet, pulling forth all of the rage and deviousness that the character embodies. Miranda Nehrig turns Ophelia into a young woman who’s confusion and frustrations over Hamlet’s behavior help lead her to her desperate end. Both have skill in communicating beyond saying the lines, especially Nehrig’s talent for adding volumes with a single facial expression.

Eric Bryant as Claudius and Jean Arnold as Gertrude present the quintessential parents who are bewildered as to why their son has so quickly changed his demeanor. Their recent nuptials so soon after the previous King’s untimely death never cross their mind as a possible reason.

While most of the Bard Fest offerings have cast women in several men’s roles, Powers uses his casting choices to their maximum effect. Jo Bennett plays Horatio as a dear friend but in later scenes there seems to be romantic tension, which they pull off with great aplomb.

However, the best example of this is with the character of Guildenstern, played by Gorgi Parks Fulper. Instructed to play upon her history with Hamlet to obtain information, she is asked to use her feminine wiles. Meanwhile, Benjamin Mathis plays Rosencrantz as the perfect second banana who seems to always be left out of the whole scheme.

Alan Cloe is perfect as wise but tragic Polonius. Noah Winston is a fiery force as his son, Laertes.

Casting is also clever in its players with two or more roles: Fulper and Mathis also play palace guards in the opening scene. Janice Hibbard is the messenger to Norway, and later is that country’s warrior princess Fortinbras. The ghost of murdered King Hamlet (the title character’s dad) is portrayed by Tony Armstrong, who also plays an identical character in the play-within-the-play that Hamlet (the younger) sets up to watch his stepfather’s reaction; later Armstrong is the gravedigger who unearths Yorick’s skull.

In addition, kudos to Rachel Snyder and Kyrsten Lyster as members of the traveling troupe of Players.

There is some intense swordplay in this production, so credit is due to Bryant as fight choreographer.

Remaining performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday, 7:30 Saturday (with talkback following) and 1 p.m. Sunday (Oct. 25-27) at the IndyFringe Theatre.