Long live Stephanie Barton-Farcas. The late Timothy Findley’s sprawling period drama “Elizabeth Rex” takes its sweet time gearing up, but once the playwright has arranged the play’s complicated duel between Barton-Farcas’ magnetic Queen Elizabeth and dying, upstart Shakespearean actor Ned Lowenscroft (Michael DiGioia), the play launches into the stratosphere. The surrounding melodrama may or may not have much of interest going on — there are enough characters here for four plays and enough acting talent for about one-and-a-half — but helmer Joanne Zipay makes liberal use of that most valuable directorial gift: focus.
It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to even write a play about Shakespeare, let alone a play about the adversarial relationship of Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth, with the Great Shakes cast as the noble speaker of truth to power.
Findley sets himself such impressive obstacles, however, that any criticism of his ambition is undercut by admiration for his technique: “Elizabeth Rex” takes place entirely in a barn, usually with a dozen characters onstage, all contributing something to the proceedings, whether it’s silly bluster from Luddy Beddoes (Oliver Conant as Findley’s fictional Falstaff performer) or Irish surliness at the Queen’s presence from Jack Edmund (Andrew Hutchenson).
The play’s actors — members of Shakespeare’s troupe, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men — are at least mostly fictional, but the plot itself is steeped in 17th century history. The Queen has imprisoned her rebellious former lover, Robert Devereaux, and set his execution for the morning after she attends “Much Ado About Nothing.” To ease her mind, or something, she decides to sneak backstage and carouse a while with the actors, especially smartass Lowenscroft, who’s dying of the pox and not afraid to shoot off his mouth.
This is, to put it kindly, a little improbable. Why seek solace among a bunch of actors with whom she has absolutely nothing in common? Why not her friends or her trusted advisers? Or her cat? It takes a while to forgive the play its perfunctory shoehorning of Elizabeth into the scene, and its ham-fisted parallels between syphilis and AIDS, but Findley creates such tension between the functionally omnipotent Queen and the fearless, obnoxious actor that their scenes completely eclipse the narrative shortcomings.
And here, the actors’ performances outweigh the production’s failings, as well. DiGioia’s self-absorbed actor is at first sad, then offensive, and finally, blessedly gracious as he and the Queen argue and come to a more thorough understanding of themselves. When DiGioia hears the voice of his long-dead lover –who gave him the disease — the play transcends its time for a few minutes and steps into what Shakespeare himself called “the undiscovered country.” What happens to the dead?
But for the rest of the play, it’s Barton-Farcas’ show: In one evening, she has to go from stoic to wounded to scarred to healed, missing all the stumbling blocks waiting to trip her on the stage and in the text. The physically tiny actress assumes royalty as though it were self-evidently hers. And strangely — while she’s heart-rendingly declaiming her lines in a very pointy dress on a small stage in Manhattan next to men and women obviously wearing upholstery — it is.