Playwright: Timothy Findley
At: Oak Park Festival Theatre at Austin Gardens, 167 Forest Ave., Oak Park. Phone: 847-; $15-$35. Runs through July 21
Who knew that Queen Elizabeth I liked to slum it with lowly actors? Even one with visible sores from a sexually transmitted "pox" who had the audacity to challenge her womanhood?
These are some of the puzzling plot points in Elizabeth Rex, an overly analytical and historically dubious 2001 drama by the late gay Canadian novelist and playwright Timothy Findley. Last seen locally at Chicago Shakespeare Theater in 2011, Elizabeth Rex is now receiving a shaky outdoor revival by director Barbara Zahora for Oak Park Festival Theatre.
Elizabeth Rex oddly begins with William Shakespeare ( Michael Joseph Mitchell ) waxing poetical on the details of his own death. Then Shakespeare questions how to dramatize an extraordinary moment in 1601 when Queen Elizabeth I ( Wendy Robi ) supposedly got all chummy with his acting company, The Lord Chamberlain's Men.
The flashback show the aftermath of a royal command performance of Much Ado About Nothing. The actors are all sequestered in a barn due to a curfew imposed on the eve of the execution the Earl of Essex, the Queen's former favorite, who led a failed uprising against her.
Actually it was Richard II that was performed. Historical records show that Essex's cohorts had paid for a Globe Theatre revival of Shakespeare's history play about the usurped king right before the coup attempt to rally supporters. So the next royal performance of Richard II was a way for the Queen to show that she had her eyes on Shakespeare's company.
Rather than explore this tense conspiracy angle, Findley imagines a too-relaxed meeting of the Queen with Shakespeare's company to question gender dynamics of men playing women on stage and women ruling as monarchs. Findley also goes out of his way to draw very obvious parallels to the 20th century AIDS crisis via the imaginary and flamboyantly gay actor Ned Lowenscroft ( Niko Kourtis ), whose devil-may-care behavior is tied to his failing health and grief over his deceased military lover.
Alas, all of this analysis doesn't make for compelling drama. Aside from Robi's witty and steely Elizabeth I, Zahora's acting company largely flounders with Findley's stop-and-start script that falls back on Shakespearean recitations to give it a level of grandeur that is lacking elsewhere.
Elizabeth Rex does boast glorious period costuming by designer Rachel Lambert, plus a handsome barn set by designer Nicholas James Schwartz. Yet some of the lighting shifts by designer Avi Sheehan were too choppy and confusing.
Elizabeth Rex does explore some interesting concepts on gender and power. But as a drama, it's far too intellectualized to be compelling theater.