A word to playwrights: Just because you set your play in 1601 and make Shakespeare a character does not mean the Bard’s theatrical magic will rub off on you. In fact, the contrast in quality between your show and, say, “Hamlet,” will almost certainly make yours look weak by comparison. Such is the case with the Timothy Findley’s “Elizabeth Rex,” receiving its West Coast premiere at the NoHo Arts Center. The story is a historical fantasy, but even on those broad terms, the actions of the characters are so improbable and overwrought that it just seems silly.
After a performance for Queen Elizabeth (Karesa McElheny), Will Shakespeare (Jay Willick) and his theatrical troupe have been put up for the night in a barn. The queen unexpectedly joins them, craving distraction as she’s having her lover Essex executed in the morning. She particularly wants to meet “leading lady” Ned (David H. Ferguson), but he is not what she expects: Gravely ill with the pox, Ned has no time for politeness. As the long evening progresses, Ned and Will try coaxing the queen to cancel the execution.
McElheny icily projects regal hauteur, but she also humanizes her character with humor: “Enough amazement,” she wearily commands after the troupe continue to gawk at her.
What doesn’t work in the play is the notion that the queen would allow herself to be verbally abused at length by an actor, and McElheny can’t make this unbelievable scenario believable.
Also, Findley’s inexplicable decision to have Elizabeth behave like the Wizard of Oz at the story’s conclusion, giving out trinkets to everybody, reminds the audience that this show is very far removed from reality.
Ferguson has some nice moments as Ned, but the role as written feels false and one-note, and the thesp is unable to get past that despite laboring strenuously. Willick adds needed subtlety to the production with a quietly observant perf, but the framing device featuring him at the open and close of the play is confusing and unnecessary.
Melanie Ewbank is rambunctiously amusing as the company costumer Tardy, and Curtis Rhodes gets excellent comic mileage out of superciliously intoning “Your Mejesty” as the manipulative Cecil.
Director Robert Mammana stages the action deftly on Dana Moran Williams’ rustic bilevel barn set but is nevertheless hampered by the flawed play.
Luke Moyer has oddly chosen to light the majority of the production in an oppressive welter of orange hues, but the sound design by Jonathan Zenz and Madonna Cacciatore adds a rich barnyard ambience to the proceedings. A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s costumes are layered and sumptuous, lending a sense of reality to this unfortunately unreal show.