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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Elizabeth Rex

If you'll teach me how to be a woman, I'll teach you how to be a man. --- Elizabeth to Ned

The title of Timothy Findley's erudite and fascinating play is not an error. Though a female English queen is called Regina, not Rex, Findley's title is the core of his concept, or perhaps Will Shakespeare's concept. It's conceivable that the entire play takes place in the mind of the playwright on the night he dies, April 22, 1616. Physically it takes place in his barn at Stratford-upon-Avon, a towering arched shape of many levels and textures designed with impeccable detail by Dana Moran Williams and lighted with shadowy warmth by Luke Moyer.

Will wanders among the trunks where costumes are stored and considers with rueful wonder his remarkable life and approaching death. Bracketed by two memory scenes, the body of the play takes place in the year 1601 on the eve of the execution of the Earl of Essex for treason. The dashing young Earl is the last great love of his aging Queen. In the play or Shakespeare's imagination, she has ordered a performance of one of Shakespeare's plays to distract her.

Also facing death is brilliant young Ned Lowenscroft, the gay actor who plays Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing and got the pox from his great love, a Captain who was killed in Ireland under Essex's hapless command The nine men play actors of all ages. That include the garrulous old man who's been acting since he was a choir boy; the lascivious portly middle-aged man who takes advantage of his Friar's robes to exact sexual penances from pretty girls; the pretty boys who play pretty girls; and Jack, the handsome leading man.

Elizabeth, accompanied by an elderly lady-in-waiting and a beautiful young one, arrives looking for distraction. She finds it in the players and encourages the out-spoken rudeness of drunken Ned.

Shakespeare is struggling to compose a play about Anthony and Cleopatra which Elizabeth perceives as an insulting, perhaps treasonous, allusion to her affair with Essex. In real life it was his play Richard II, banned by the Crown censors because Richard was overthrown and murdered by a royal rebel, that led to Essex's downfall. The Earl commissioned a performance of the treasonous piece just before his open rebellion collapsed and sent him to the Tower.

The play uses the Queen's conflict over the possibility of a reprieve for Essex to generate tension. Its core concepts are mortality and gender roles. Elizabeth declares she's repressed the woman in her nature so that England might survive. Ned has never found the man in his. Through the catharsis of their philosophical duels, both Elizabeth and Ned find the balance in their natures.

Even in her moments of heartbroken distress, Karesa McElheny never loses the regal bearing and imperious manner of a Queen. In the highly stylized role of Ned which alternates rage and grief with poignance, the remarkable David H. Ferguson manages the rare feat of being completely believable. The two are supported by an exceptional cast who, under the intuitive direction of Robert Mammana, respect the literacy of Findley's prose and heighten the dramatic passion that drives the play.

Production values are first rate, as is usual for this company. A Jeffrey Schoenberg designed exquisite opulent costumes. The only jarring note was Elizabeth's second act farthingale, a structure which held a woman's dress out around her hips. Its cut was not as perfect as the first act costume, resulting in a less flattering line. The production includes some rarely heard Elizabeth songs whose poignant melody reinforces the play's themes. Chalk this up as another success for the Noho Arts Center!

Playwright: Timothy Findley
Director: Robert Mammana
Cast: Karesa McElheny (Elizabeth), David H. Ferguson (Ned), Jay Willick (Will), James Lunsford (Jack), Curtis Rhodes (Cecil), Melanie Ewbank (Tardy), Daniel Sapecky Percy), J. R. Mangels (Harry), Shannen Ferreira (Stanley), Rebecca Brunk (Henslowe), Rebekah Dunn (Bear), Bill Ruehl (Luddy), Jonathan Zenz (Matt), Elly Jaresko (Ben).
Set Design: Dana Moran Williams
Lighting Design: Luke Moyer
Costume Design: A. Jeffrey Schoenberg
Sound Design: Jonathan Zenz & Madonna Cacciatore
Hair & Make-Up Design: Robin McWilliams
Running Time: Two and a half hours, one intermission
Running Dates: May 19 to June 25, 2006
Where: NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd, North Hollywood, Reservations: (818) 508-7101, Ext. 5
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on May 19.
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