Thursday, July 18, 2013

Review: (Vancouver) Elizabeth Rex

Colleen Wheeler (photo by David Blue)

Audience Engulfed in Passion and Rage
An acting tour de force by Colleen Wheeler

by David C. Jones

I have seen this play before, but I have never felt it. By ‘felt it’ I include the moment when I was biting my index finger - painfully.

Celebrated Canadian author the late Timothy Findlay wrote the award winning Elizabeth Rex in 2000. 

Queen Elizabeth needs distraction, she has sentenced her lover Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex to death for treason. She summons Lord Chamberlain’s Players to perform Much Ado About Nothing. Because of a potential riot brewing the actors and the playwright, William Shakespeare, have to spend the evening in the palace barn.

This is an actor’s piece and director Rachel Ditor has created a personal best with this production

The sovereign needs to disentangle her conflicting feelings; lover vs. ruler, queen vs. woman, so she visits the actors despite the barking dogs, pet bear and hay. There she meets an actor Ned Lowenscroft dying from an act of love. She barks some orders and while the rest of the company bows and scrapes – Ned holds his ground and teases her.  He is dying anyway so what has he got to lose. Unlike Queen Victoria, she is amused. So they spar and argue. Since he plays all the women in Shakespeare’s plays she thinks he needs to be manlier about his impending death. Since she is clearly conflicted between being a strong leader and lover about to lose her love, he thinks she'll get in touch with the woman under the crown. Their connector is William Shakespeare, himself in love with another prisoner of the Queen, the Earl of Southampton. The duo engages in a series of mind games stripping away the masks that have outlived their purpose. The physiological warfare is riveting – they thrust and parry, engage and enrage. All the while Shakespeare is cribbing notes for his new play Antony and Cleopatra.

This is an actor’s piece and director Rachel Ditor has created a personal best with this production – it is perfectly cast. 

Mr. Findlay has populated the acting company with some varied personalities. Practically blind and gruff Kate Tardwell the dresser is the delightful Lois Anderson, smitten by Ned is the chameleon like Anton Lipovetsky, he and Dustin Freeland play the other young actors in the company who play the women’s roles. Gruff and wounded Irish actor Jack Edmund is played by Andrew Wheeler and a genial and scattered Bernard Cuffling plays the aging actor with a lot of stories, Percy Gower. Rounding out the company are a dashing Matt Welles and braggart Luddy Beddoes played to great effect by Luc Roderique and Chris Cochrane respectively and Benjamin Elliott as a lazy and content bear, a stunning costume.

In the queen’s company is the loyal but distracted Lady Stanly played by Sereana Malani, a traditional but sleepy Countess Henslowe snappily played by Susinn McFarlen and David Mackay as Lord Robert Cecil an advisor beholden to tradition and protocol.

David Marr (who played Ned in the Stanley Theatre production several years ago) balances both the curious and passionate writer and the worried lover to William Shakespeare.

I mention all the actors because they bring all the corners and layers of this world to life and as with the shows in the Main Tent it is wholly remarkable to see these actors double cast into different productions and how much they transform and bring each character to vivid life.
So dangerous in her power it is not unthinkable that she might pick up a sword and strike down someone who displeases her.

While the play Elizabeth Rex benefits from such a strong ensemble the electricity and dynamite comes from the battle between leads.

Haig Sutherland is heartbreaking as the dying Ned, stoic and funny you can feel the inner fear and anger he has  because his love and desire has led to his imminent death. Although dying from Syphilis the parallels to AIDS are clear. He finds a kamikaze laissez-faire quality that makes him a formidable foe and ally in the psycho-drama arena.

And in this corner….Colleen Wheeler is always remarkable but her performance here still brings tears to my eyes.  Strong and decisive she cuts a remarkable figure, the costume by Mara Gottler is so garish and large it seems to taunt or dare anyone to make fun of it. She cautions at one point “I warn you I will not be ridiculed” with a steely resolve that makes you shudder to consider the consequence. So dangerous in her power it is not unthinkable that she might pick up a sword and strike down someone who displeases her. Inside this daunting and frightening leader is a woman who has been betrayed by a lover and it is eating away at her.

When she is challenged on this you can feel the rage and pain emanating from inside of her. It is engulfing, her turmoil and helplessness at odds with her reluctance to show any weakness. When a truly devastating piece of news arrives she lets out a howl that is profoundly harrowing.

This whole season at Bard on The Beach has been remarkable - the depth of pain and fear of loss in each of the shows has been so heartfelt and adds a sense of immediacy to the shows that makes them all so compelling for different reasons.

Elizabeth Rex is the last show to open this season and it towers atop an already staggeringly high quality season.

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