`Elizabeth' filled with complexities

Production ignores profound questions drama generates

Theater Review

April 01, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Maxwell Anderson's 1930 verse play, Elizabeth the Queen, explores a number of intriguing issues: Whether it is more courageous to wage peace than war, whether women rule more wisely than men, and whether power is a stronger impulse than love.

At its core, however, the play is a study of two characters, Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex. Individually, these two were extremely complex figures, which made their emotional attachment all more complicated. And, from his use of verse to his inclusion of a Shakespearean play-within-a-play, Anderson appears to have been striving to create a drama of Shakespearean scope.

But Elizabeth the Queen falls short of this mark, and British director Richard Clifford's production at Washington's Folger Theatre - and especially actress Michael Learned's depiction of the title character - accentuates its shortcomings by reducing the play's central relationship to a clash of wills.

The production does boast a number of fine performances, chief among them, that of Martin Kildare, whose Essex is a confident, smart, born leader whose major - and ultimately fatal -flaw is a vain, almost boyish inability to turn the other cheek when his valor is challenged. It is this weakness that drives Essex to lead a futile campaign into Ireland, against Elizabeth's wishes and his own better judgment, and when that campaign is sabotaged, to return to England with a rebellious army determined to place him on the throne.

Kildare plays Essex with such attractive assurance, it's easy to see why even the most circumspect queen would fall for him, possibly at the risk of her kingdom. Yet Learned brings little chemistry to their encounters, which, particularly in the early going, feel incongruously sitcom-like.

Much of the difficulty lies in the actress' lack of regal bearing and aristocratic authority. Costume designer Brenda Plakans has dressed the rest of the cast in a palette of black, gray, silver and gold; for Elizabeth, however, she has recreated the red velvet gown that appears in the famed Plimpton "Sieve" portrait that is a centerpiece of the Folger Shakespeare Library collection. Learned does not look comfortable in this elaborate outfit. She doesn't, for example, seem to know what to do with her hands, frequently planting them at her waist as if they were further embellishments to her costume.

But this isn't the production's worst example of an exaggerated pose. That comes in the final scene. While the troubled, grief-stricken queen waits for Essex' death sentence to be carried out, director Clifford has her lean back in her throne, with her arms outstretched in an overt crucifixion image. He then compounds this overstatement by cutting the closing lines spoken by her lady in waiting, Penelope Gray, and, instead of settling for the sound of the clock striking the hour of execution, letting us hear the fall of the executioner's ax as well.

This is all the more unfortunate because Penelope is played with poignancy and grace by Ann Bowles, who delivered a strong portrayal of Ophelia in the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival's production of Hamlet last summer. The scenes between Bowles' Penelope and Rick Foucheux' marvelous, groveling, working-class Fool are the production's most touching.

Elizabeth the Queen and the library's exhibit are part of a larger Washington celebration of the 400th anniversary of Elizabeth's reign. Titled "Shakespeare & the World of Elizabeth I," the event also includes the current production of Richard III at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company's As You Like It, coming to the Kennedy Center later this month. Even more closely allied in terms of subject matter, a production of Schiller's Mary Stuart coincidentally begins performances this week at Center Stage. If the Folger Theatre's rendition of Elizabeth the Queen had more depth, it might have made a fitting companion piece.

But instead of plumbing Elizabeth's psychology, director Clifford appears to have based his interpretation on a single question raised by Sir Walter Raleigh in the play's opening scene: "Which does she love more, her earl or her kingdom?" Granted, it's a central question, but Clifford makes the mistake of hammering home the answer, and in the process, giving short shrift to the play's other valid - and in some cases, extremely timely - questions. The result turns a potentially thought-provoking drama into a closed chapter of a history book.


What: Elizabeth the Queen

Where: Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St., S.E., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through May 4

Tickets: $34-$46

Call: 202-544-7077

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