It's 1601 in London, and former royal favorite Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, will be executed at dawn. The only person who can save him is the person he betrayed, Elizabeth I (the extraordinary Diane D'Aquila), now nearly 70 years old after 43 years as queen. What does she do? She spends a night in the royal barn with Shakespeare and his acting troupe after a command performance at the palace.
Elizabeth is petty and peremptory and not very likeable, yet by the end of the play one understands the conflict between the inner Bess, a woman with a heart to be broken, and the imperious outer Majesty, with "the stomach of a king, and a King of England, too" as she once actually said.
When Devereux (who never appears) finally is executed, Elizabeth's howl of pain and loss is shattering. It takes a long time to reach that point, however, and one spends intermission wondering why one should care about her at all.
Elizabeth's foil and adversary isn't Shakespeare, who serves as an avuncular secondary presence, but a fictional actor, Ned Lowenscroft (the believable, excellent Steven Sutcliffe), who plays the principal women's roles in Shakespeare's troupe. Lowenscroft is homosexual (at a time when it was severely punishable) and dying of "the pox" (syphilis), which audiences will see as a stand-in for AIDS. With nothing to lose, Lowenscroft becomes court jester for the night, contending with Elizabeth over his need to play the woman and Elizabeth's need to play the man.
A dozen veteran Chicago players provide worthy support as various theatrical types, including Kevin Gudahl (Shakespeare), Bradley Armacost (aging actor Percy Gower), Mary Ann Thebus (costume mistress Kate Tardwell) and Andrew Rothenberg (Jack Edmund, the leading man).
Daniel Ostling's beamed barn set is massive, yet all but smells of horses and hay in its rich detailing, and Mariann S. Verheyen's costumes are prize-worthy, from Elizabeth's spectacular gown to the none-too-clean hose-and-doublets of the troupers.