Friday 26 July 2013

Actors rip into Findley script at Vanier Park

First impressions :  Elizabeth Rex is a spicy, sex-driven tale purpose-built for the contemporary stage: power politics meets sexual politics meets theatrical games. The late Canadian actor, novelist, essayist & playwright Timothy Findley fantasizes that Shakespeare's acting troupe spends a night yakking it up with Queen Elizabeth I in a barn behind her castle in 1601. The play is staged as a 15-year flashback viewed through the prism of Shakespeare's mind hours before his final exit: he supposedly imagines all this on the eve of his death at 52 in April, 1616. It's as if he's directing the play that in the time QEI lived (d. 1603) would dare not speak its name because of its myriad sexual revelations. The setting is almost whimsical, like an impromptu talk-back between cast and audience replete with chicken fingers & ale. WS opens the show thus: "These are the only truths I know -- I know no other truths but these. We play so many roles before we die -- and then...we die." Sandwich'd between his front-&-back-end monologues is the following play-within-a-play.

Plot overview : Shakespeare's troupe, Lord Chamberlain's Men (LCM) has just performed Much Ado About Nothing for Queen Bess as divertissement. The 67-year-old monarch is troubled this Shrove Tuesday night because her former lover turned traitor, the 30-something Earl of Essex, is to be beheaded at dawn on Ash Wednesday by her command. Thanks to a convenient curfew on the streets of London -- Bess fears there may be a pro-Essex uprising -- LCM is forced to bivouac overnight in the royal stables. Seeking further distraction throughout the long night of waiting, the queen joins the troupe unannounced and demands their continued entertainment of her.

The play's conceit : In real life QEI is quoted as having said: "Though the sex to which I belong is considered weak, you will nevertheless find me a rock that bends to no wind." And further: "I have the heart of a man, not a woman, and I am not afraid of anything." The queen wonders whether she can now tame her constant "manliness" and summon the emotion to mourn her lost love. Her antagonist, meanwhile, is LCM actor Ned Lowenscroft whose career championed his playing women's roles because women were not permitted to act in Elizabethan times. He is not only gay (as was Findley himself), his late soldier lover Captain Hal gave him the "pox". AIDS-like lesions now cover his body. He fears he will die soon. In contrast to "King Elizabeth", Ned the perpetual woman on-stage wonders whether he has sufficient "man" in him off-stage to face death bravely. Most of the action involves bouts of sometimes surreal verbal jousting between the so-called "virgin queen"and the commoner gay actor whom Bess was so impressed with when he played Beatrice in the MAAN performance. For his part WS wanders through the barn fitfully. He scritches out snippets of dialogue for his latest work-in-progress and along the way admits his chief love in life was Essex's co-conspirator the Earl of Southampton. 

What to expect @ Vanier Park :  Despite a cast of 14, Findley's focus is clearly on the three principals -- the queen (Colleen Wheeler), Lowenscroft (Haig Sutherland), and WS (David Marr). Because of Bess's intrigue at the "how" Lowenscroft brings to his women's roles on stage, she offers him a carte blanche ticket to act in whatever role he wants during the evening's long wait for the axe to fall on Essex's neck. This leads at one point to the nearly absurd exchange between them when she shrieks at him he's but a "Beatrice in britches!" and he retorts she's but her father "King Henry in skirts!" That's a script problem, however, not the actors' fault. Generally Wheeler finds just the right words to shout out with full-on regal contempt, such as "Ingrate!" that she bellows to correct one of the troupe who has referred to Essex as a "reprobate" instead. Wheeler conjures for me the memory of Glenda Jackson's Elizabeth R role, a tour de force, on USA's Masterpiece Theatre some 40 years back. Powerful. Richly evocative. Sarcasm in whiffs, drips and globs. She and Sutherland swap words with rapier-fast delivery and artful, purposeful injury to one another in search of each other's alter ego, if there in fact is one for either of them. Findley tries to convince us here, but his words don't quite pull it off by play's end. [See "warnings" section below.]

As WS, David Marr infuses the Bard with fretful believability. When Bess accuses him of being a "vagabond from reality" who produces on stage "histories that are lies", Marr quite forcefully lets her know he wears such an accusatory mantle proudly. Stage plays are "art", not "life", he insists, always plumping for compassion to triumph over vengeance. Which in his world he lets happen; in hers she does not. "And if, because I love him I spare him, I will then have killed the man in me who is England's only defence against her enemies," she says. And : "I killed the woman in my heart, that England might survive...".

Thank god for comic relief in the play. It comes from two sources primarily, the role of the troupe's nearly-blind seamstress Kate "Tardy" Tardwell who's always kvetching at the actors for how they abuse her costumes. Lois Anderson absolutely nails this role with wonderful stage business, gesticulation, voice and body action. As the aging former clown Percy Gower, Bernard Cuffling never fails to raise a giggle with his various plaints and antics. Mention, too, must be made of Andrew Wheeler in his Irishman's Jack Edmund turn. A proper blend of a stiff and unhappy obeisance to Her Majesty, with his Dublinesque peasant's contempt for the English nevertheless right on his sleeve at all times. Strong and steady performances by the balance of the ensemble, though Findley didn't give them much to do but to watch and listen to the Main 3. (As Lowencroft's "rescue bear" -- saved from certain death in the bear bait pits of the times -- Benjamin Elliott makes the life-size ursine Hush Puppy almost, well, "believable".)

Production values : Rachel Ditor squeezes every ounce of skill from her cast in this compleat outing at the studio stage. While Findley's script gets somewhat rambly and redundant and preachy in Act II, Ditor manages her crew well so they deliver crisply and evocatively regardless. Still, to hack maybe 10-15 minutes off thru use of a deft editor's scalpel wouldn't hurt the play's intent or impact, i.m.o. Scenic designer Drew Facey's Elizabethan barn / actors' hang-out acquits itself admirably, as did his Measure for Measure New Orleans grillwork. Costume designer Mara Gottier has both eye and touch that please : whether brocaded gowns or actors' skivvies -- not to mention Bess's wigs atop her shaved head -- all of it suits the time and the characters perfectly. Patrick Pennefather's period music helped set a proper Elizabethan tone and mood. 

Politics-of-sex warnings : Since its premier in 2000, critics have termed Findley's script "didactic", "derivative", "contrived" and "dated" given the yin-yang stereotypes being examined: yin "softness" -vs- yang "hardness; head -vs- heart; ideas/decisions -vs- feelings/empathy. Even the gender-swapping aspect of the play -- the butchy queen 
-vs- the bitchy quean -- is declared cliche and finds no end of detractors. But like WS scripts themselves such as Taming of the Shrew, Findley's Rex requires suspension of disbelief and tolerance for stereotypes both traditional and contemporary. For prospective viewers, it's a case of wysiwyg and caveat emptor both.

Should you go? : The above "warning" notwithstanding, Elizabeth Rex squares nicely with the Bard on the Beach Shakespearean format, no question. And the excellent cast performances will delight, particularly Colleen Wheeler's Elizabeth. Another "big win" for this year's ensemble that year-after-year helps shape summer's cultural identity in Vancouver.


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