Playwright: Timothy Findley. At: Chicago Shakespeare Theater (Navy Pier). Tickets: 312-595-5600; www.chicagoshakes.com/rex; $44-$75. Runs through: Jan. 22
It's 1601 and Elizabeth I has reigned for 43 years. An old 70, she uses lead-based make-up to cover smallpox scars and she wears a wig the color of her hair at 20. Former royal favorite Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, will be executed at dawn and only Elizabeth, whom he betrayed, can save him. What does she do? She spends the night in the royal barn with Shakespeare and his actors after a command performance at the palace.
Elizabeth is peremptory, petty and not very likeable in an age when English monarchs held nearly absolute power. By the end of the play you understand why and come to pity her as Elizabeth's self-conflict is revealed: the private womanly Bess, who can give her heart, and the public imperious majesty who must have "the stomach of a king, and a King of England, too," as she actually said. Devereux captivated both Elizabeths, although it's highly doubtful they had a physical relationship, as the play suggests. When Devereux (who never appears) is executed, Elizabeth lets loose a howl of pain and loss that is heart-breaking. However, it takes a long time to get there: Well passed intermission, one questions why one should care for her at all.
Canadian author Timothy Findley's decade-old play stretches historical truth to the breaking point, but it's the sort of play audiences love. Think The Madness of King George or The Lion in Winter (or Shakespeare's history plays, for that matter). Like them, Findley takes a contemporary view of his characters, especially in Elizabeth's antagonist. It's not the benign and avuncular Shakespeare, whom the real Elizabeth met several times, but fictional actor Ned Lowenscroft, who plays the leading ladies in Shakespeare's troupe. He's openly gay (a capital crime at that time) and dying of "the pox" (syphilis), which is a neat stand-in for AIDS. With nothing to lose, Lowenscroft challenges the Queen to unlock her inner womanhood while she, in turn, confronts his femininity.
As directed by Barbara Gaines, queen and commoner are portrayed in astonishing and believable performances by Diane D'Aquila and Steven Sutcliffe, abetted by exceptional costume, make-up and wig effects (Elizabeth was nearly bald at 70, and when she removes her wigWow!).
A dozen veteran Chicago players provide worthy support mostly as members of Shakespeare's acting troupe, among them Kevin Gudahl (Shakespeare), Bradley Armacost (aging actor Percy Gower), Mary Ann Thebus (costume mistress Kate Tardwell) and Andrew Rothenberg (leading man Jack Edmund). Daniel Ostling's beamed barn set is massive, yet all but smells of horses and hay in its rich detailing. Mariann S. Verheyen's costumes are prize-worthy, from Elizabeth's spectacular gown to the none-too-clean hose-and-doublets of the troupers.