Gallows Humor

Paul Foster's Elizabeth I is a strange little farce about 16th-century politics. Dull as this might sound, the youthful production, directed by George Brock, is oddly entertaining. Still, with so many historical characters parading by, it helps to review a bit of Western civics before wandering into the theater.

Here goes: Elizabeth I ruled during the second half of the turbulent 16th century; she displayed an astute, strong will that established England as the mightiest of all nation-states. She secured the power of her philandering father's Anglican Church by passing anti-Catholic legislation while pressing her thumb down on the antics of those pesky Puritans. She handled volatile foreign affairs with France and Spain, eventually repelling an attack from what was considered to be an invincible Spanish armada. And most famously, she brought the conspiratorial Mary Queen of Scots down from her prison tower and beheaded the difficult cousin, settling once and for all any questions about who would be queen. Throughout these stormy years, the tiny redheaded monarch managed to keep the peace, while promoting the most significant geniuses of her age, including Shakespeare, Marlowe and Sir Francis Bacon.

The silliness of Elizabeth I, the play, is much clearer if you review the history of Elizabeth I, the woman. And silly this play is -- from the moment the audience drifts in from the lobby. The attractive actors, all dressed in the traditional rehearsal garb of black tights and muslin shirts, are busy setting up props as they run through vocal warm-ups. Sometimes they stroll into the audience to lounge and chat. When the houselights go down, they leap onto the stage and gather ceremoniously around a character named Pata Sola the Witch (Nora Stein), who informs us that we are about to hear the story of Queen Elizabeth, a story that includes some very unsavory characters.


Elizabeth I

Actors Theatre of Houston, 2506 South Boulevard

Through Saturday, August 18; 713-529-6606. $14

Especially naughty is Sheri Lynn's Queen Catherine of France, who connives with Nostradamus (Jim Lawrence) to kill her rivals by infecting them with syphilis through handsome lovers. King Philip of Spain (Pablo Bracho) hates Elizabeth (Sara Simmonds) because she's not a Catholic; he wants her dead because "she scorns" his "gentle" religion. Francis Bacon (Foster Davis), among others, is ever ready to give bad advice to the queen as she deals with France and Spain and the troublesome Queen Mary.

As these oddballs spin by, we get the skinny on all sorts of bad behavior, including Elizabeth's supposed affair with the Earl of Leicester (Colin Platt). Lute-playing, drumming and chanting establish the period; otherwise, the show is minimalist, with plywood platforms and few costumes or props. The strength of the production lies with its young cast, which is clearly enjoying the freedom the script calls for; they break with convention while showing the skanky side of royalty. It's quite a feat when you think about it: making merry about people better known for their torture instruments than their humor.


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