Chicago Shakes’ superb ‘Elizabeth Rex’ explores the transformative power of theatre

Ned Lowenscroft (Steven Sutcliffe) spars with Queen Elizabeth (Diane D’Aquila) in Chicago Shakes’ “Elizabeth Rex.” Photo by Liz Lauren

Queen Elizabeth is in a rare quandary. The Earl of Essex, her former lover, has betrayed her country, leaving her no choice but to mark him for execution. And it’s the eve of his death. Naturally, she seeks distraction. Send in the clowns! And by clowns, I mean Shakespearian actors. In a command performance, they perform Much Ado About Nothing. Little do these actors know that following curtain call, their jobs have just begun.

In Timothy Findley’s play, Elizabeth Rex, he imagines a scenario where the Queen (Diane D’Aquila) joins the eclectic troupe of actors — much to their surprise! — in a barn where they have been held for curfew. And who should be among them but Master Shakespeare himself, played with understated grace by Kevin Gudahl. However, in this play, Shakespeare functions as a secondary character, literally observing the action from the periphery — and taking copious notes, as any good writer would do.

The primary relationship forms between the Queen and Ned Lowenscroft (Steven Sutcliffe), the “greatest actor of female roles in England,” as the Queen grandly declares. Ned, a gay man who’s suffering from syphilis he caught from a lover who died of the disease (and a not-so-subtle stand-in for the HIV crisis), quickly captures the Queen’s awe. Through his grief, passion and brutal honesty, he gains her empathy and respect, and, in turn, helps her let down her hair (or remove it, as is the case) and find her inner female.

That’s not to say the Queen becomes a softie: she spars with Ned and frequently asserts her authority. But Ned, who can see right through her emotional armor, holds his ground and challenges her. It’s thrilling stuff.

What I loved about Findley’s play is how effectively it explores the transformative power of theatre — how actors can crawl into another person’s skin for a few hours and lose themselves in the story, while also discovering something about themselves in the process. Or how watching a story on the stage helps you reconcile life’s vexing issues. It’s a remarkable, beautiful thing, and I haven’t seen a play that’s so effectively represented the healing powers of the theatre as Elizabeth Rex does.

But what makes Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production in particular a must-see are the performances. There’s something so completely satisfying about watching an actor in a role tailor fit for them. Canadian actress D’Aquila embodies Queen Elizabeth — a role she originated when the play premiered in 2000 at the Stratford Festival in Canada — with such command and ferocity, it’s simply breathtaking.

While there have been many great actresses who’ve portrayed Queen Elizabeth I on film and stage over the years, D’Aquila manages to wipe all those memories away from the moment she opens her mouth and bellows her first line. This isn’t a subtle performance — it’s big, grand and emotionally unpredictable. Whether theatre, barn or castle, this Queen holds court. And Sutcliffe takes a role that could veer into “tragic gay cliché” territory and fills him with true-blue humanity, making him sensitive without being overly sentimental, proving a perfect match for the Queen’s gruff exterior. Together, they make theatrical fireworks.

And then there are the final moments of this play, which gave me chills. CHILLS. So just see the damned thing already. This queen implores you.

“Elizabeth Rex” plays through January 22, 2012 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Tickets here >

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