Christopher Barreca's set for "The Queen and the Rebels" makes Center Stage's Head Theater look more ramshackle than when it was under construction a year ago -- but in this case, that means the show looks great.
The setting is an abandoned town hall in an unnamed European country in the midst of civil war. The windows are boarded, the walls are banked with sandbags and the back half is flooded.
In the last act there's a magnificent moment when the heart of the play is encapsulated in a single image: Demonstrating what he'd do if he got his hands on the escaped queen, a soldier slits open a sandbag; as the sand forms an eerie mist against the shadows, a prostitute who has been mistaken for the queen wraps a blanket around her shoulders like a cloak and strides across the floor with regal bearing.
For that matter, almost everything about director Irene Lewis' production looks good -- so much so that the production outclasses the play, a fairly didactic 1949 script by the highly regarded but rarely produced Italian playwright Ugo Betti. Ms. Lewis has assembled an impressive cast, but even the finest performances cannot enliven a line as leaden as: "You are the hook from which tyranny hangs."
Gratefully, there is more to this play than didacticism, and one of the production's chief assets is its focus on the human elements instead of the political pronouncements. From a psychological as well as a theatrical standpoint, the central dramatic conflict is the notion of role switching -- of a commoner passing herself off as a queen and a queen as a peasant.
The majesty of Caitlin Clarke's portrayal of Argia, the prostitute, goes far deeper than the fantasies of a member of the lower class. Ms. Clarke undergoes a true transformation in which she realizes that grandeur of spirit has nothing to do with rank or position, it comes from a notion of self-worth.
In contrast, as the escaped queen, Elizabeth Van Dyke is a scared rabbit, deprived of self-respect and left with only the animal instinct to stay alive. Also noteworthy in this multicultural cast is Jan Triska as a smiling, nihilistic revolutionary commissar (who would seem even crueler if his smile were colder). And Thomas Ikeda shines in the small but touching role of a frightened porter, who longs for someone to believe in.
Only Gregory Wallace seems miscast; he portrays Argia's former lover with a 1990s street smart demeanor that is out of place in this 1940s time frame.
In a strict political sense, "The Queen and the Rebels" conveys an anti-fascist message; in a broader sense, its message is anti-war. These sentiments may be politically correct, but they are still messages, not drama. And though Center Stage has mounted a production that is also visually and theatrically correct, in the final analysis, it's a glowing production of a dry script.
"The Queen and the Rebels" continues at Center Stage through Dec. 1; call 332-0033.