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