One of the undisputed gems of the current theater season here is this sublime production of Maxwell Anderson's 1930 love story about Queen Elizabeth I, based loosely on the monarch's relationship with a prominent member of her court. It is dominated by Michael Learned's stunning portrayal of a regal but vulnerable ruler.

One of the undisputed gems of the current theater season here is this sublime production of Maxwell Anderson’s 1930 love story about Queen Elizabeth I, based loosely on the monarch’s relationship with a prominent member of her court. It is dominated by Michael Learned’s stunning portrayal of a regal but vulnerable ruler.

Learned is convincing in every way. Bedecked in jewels and corseted red gown, she could have stepped out of artist George Gower’s famous “sieve portrait,” which coincidentally hangs in the theater’s adjoining library as part of an exhibit on her reign, which ended precisely 400 years ago. More importantly, she precisely nails a role that calls for strength, compassion and jealousy, among a wide range of emotions demanded by Anderson’s intriguing plot.

In a palace filled with ambitious characters elbowing for favor, all pale beside the egotistical Lord Essex (Martin Kildare), who eagerly manipulates the affections of Her Majesty to achieve his goals. Yet for Britain’s lonely and aging “virgin queen,” the decision is as painful as it is clear: Essex’s clumsy bid for the throne must end in the Tower.

Kildare heads a strong ensemble as a conniving soldier wary of his rivals. Elliot Dash, Jeremiah Wiggins and John Lescault also persuade as the court’s other influential nobles, while Rick Foucheux is excellent as the court’s deceptively clever fool.

The production is visually striking. Learned’s fiery red gown is in bold contrast to the blacks, golds and grays adorning all other characters outfitted by designer Brenda Plakans, not to mention Tony Cisek’s slick, steely set. Director Richard Clifford keeps the action moving and emotions continually on edge.

Elizabeth the Queen

Folger Theater, Washington; 250 seats; $46 top

Production

A Folger Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Maxwell Anderson. Directed by Richard Clifford.

Creative

Sets, Tony Cisek; costumes, Brenda Plakans; lighting, Dan Covey; music and sound, Scott Burgess; dramaturg, Ken Ludwig. Opened, reviewed March 26, 2003. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast

Sir Walter Raleigh - Gary Sloan Penelope Gray - Ann Bowles Captain Anmin - Elliot Dash Sir Robert Cecil - Jeremiah Wiggins Francis Bacon - John Lescault Lord Essex - Martin Kildare Elizabeth - Michael Learned Lord Burghley - Ralph Cosham The Fool - Rick Foucheux
With: Sam Elmore, Michael Glenn, Jason Lott, Sam McCready, Tim Getman, Jessica Cerullo.
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