Findley devised a droll and often ingenious situation wherein Elizabeth I (Stephanie Barton-Farcas) -- who famously unsexed herself so she could think and act like a man -- meets her diametric opposite in Ned Lowenscroft (Michael DiGioia), the actor taking on the major women's roles in William Shakespeare's troupe. He also rigs it so the dying 52-year-old Bard himself (Scott Nogi) flashes back 15 years to a night when his players are stranded in one of the Monarch's barns after performing Much Ado About Nothing on the night before Elizabeth's lover, Robert Devereux (aka the Earl of Essex), is to be beheaded. Distraught about her decision not to pardon him, the royal personage decides to forget her troubles by cavorting with the thespians.
Once among them, she begins wallowing in the loss of her femininity. That's where Lowenscroft, slowly expiring from the pox, comes in handy -- or as she says to him, "If you will teach me how to be a woman, I will teach you how to be a man." While their confrontation serves as the spine of Findley's piece, the playwright gives the other thespians and courtiers a few things to do, like play scenes from other plays Shakespeare had quilled by 1601. The divine Will himself jots additional notes for Antony and Cleopatra, devilishly likening that ill-fated couple's plight to the famed Elizabeth-Essex affair.
As clever as Findley can be, the volatile by-play between Elizabeth and Lowenscroft extends longer than necessary. As it does, Findley has other characters -- like aging stage fool Percy Gower (Bill Galarno) -- standing around unfleshed out. Even Shakespeare, who should have some magnetism, spends too much time on the sidelines. Luckily, Barton-Farcas and DiGioia working like slaves in the two pivotal roles get much of the demanded urgency, neediness, and uncertainty. But even they -- pointing and shrieking at each other -- become unpleasantly repetitive as the acts attenuate. They'd register higher on the nuance meter were they better guided, but Zipay isn't the one to keep a play like this one hopping.
Imagination is essential, and leaving eight or ten actors merely holding up the walls of John Trevellini and Gabrielle Montgomery's adequate set represents the very absence of imagination, and the rest of the cast isn't up to the leads' level. And allowing some of the under-used and under-prepared participants to feign sleep definitely isn't the answer; it gives the audiences the wrong kind of tempting idea.
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