Battle Royale

In the opening of Timothy Findley's Elizabeth Rex, we meet William Shakespeare, an astonishingly dull fellow as imagined here, who's busy contemplating the lonely metaphysics of his impending death. In his effort to "learn how to die," he's returned to the barn (shaped with round gray stones and thick brown beams by designer Jodi Bobrovsky) where he and his motley troupe of actors first met Queen Elizabeth some 15 years earlier. This strange encounter between thespians and royalty makes up the spine of Findley's unusual tale about gender, power and the terrifying emptiness of death. Stages Repertory Theatre opens its new season with the American premiere of this promising script, which made its debut a year ago at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, to mostly favorable reviews, but under Rob Bundy's direction, the results are decidedly mixed.

Findley's script is filled with terrific leaps of imagination that derive from the strange and fortuitous encounter between the queen and Edward Lowenscroft. This meeting unfolds after Queen Elizabeth (Sally Edmundson) has condemned her lover, the Earl of Essex, to the headsman for treason. Though racked with guilt and grief, she stands firm in her ruling. To take her mind off her troubles, she commands a performance of Much Ado About Nothing. After the show, she finds her way to the barn, where the actors have been housed for the night. In their wild and raucous company, she will wait out the long, dark eve of her lover's doom.

And in this setting, far from the royal courts and palaces, she meets "Ned" Lowenscroft (Joel Sandel), a gay actor considered to be Shakespeare's greatest portrayer of women. Lowenscroft, who is dying from syphilis, can play anything "but his own life," we are told. He is terrified of death but still longs for the dead soldier who infected him six years earlier. From these strange circumstances, the two opposites come together to teach each other "how to go on living -- by learning how to die."

But first they will spend a good deal of time raging at each other. The queen wants Ned to be a man and stop whining about his death so that he might truly live all the time he has left. He wants her to show the heart she hides under her royal robes. He begs her to pardon Essex, so that she might love like a woman, instead of condemning like a king (thus the Rex in the title). The queen and the actor attack each other with all the ferocity of those who have little to lose. These bitter battles compose the best scenes of the play.

Edmundson, with her mannish musical voice and her arched brow, square jaw and steely back, is every bit a queen, commanding the stage every time she strolls across it. When the dirty actors fall to their knees at her entrance, her regal instructions include a wry wave of her elegant hand and the admonition, "Enough amazement."

Sandel, as the bilious and embittered Lowenscroft, strikes out with an almost reptilian resentment at the haughty, handsome sovereign. Bone-thin and covered with sores, Lowenscroft hunches over as if putting his shoulder to the wind of his sadness. But this lover of the downtrodden -- he keeps a pet bear that he saved from the horrors of bear-baiting -- is sick of everything, including his own sorrows. Empowered with the unhappy knowledge of his own imminent death, he alone can fearlessly challenge the queen's chilliness. The condemned browbeats the condemner, arguing that she is no woman if she allows her lover to meet the headsman at dawn.

"If I could kill every man in England, I would," she glowers. Then she breaks a little, begging Lowenscroft to tell her about death: "How does one do this?" she cries.

These oral fisticuffs reveal a remarkable intellect and a willingness to make connections between the ages. Lowenscroft's syphilis alludes to AIDS, and all the questions concerning women and power and so-called feminine sensibilities are as relevant today as ever.

However, there are many weakness in this script -- and in this production. When Elizabeth or Lowenscroft leaves the stage, so does all the energy. The supporting characters are so utterly superfluous there is little the cast can do to make them worth watching. Only Daniel Magill as the sexy, rebellious Irish actor, and quirky Jef Johnson as the queen's emotionally constipated secretary, find enough eccentricity within their underwritten roles to make them engaging. Otherwise, the story is lost without its main characters.

And while Edmundson and Sandel are terrific during the scenes filled with conflict, they struggle when Queen Elizabeth weeps over Essex, and when Lowenscroft tells his own sad love story and then acts out a scene that should undulate with heartbreaking loss. Edmundson is too bombastic, shouting out her pain over Essex's doom as though she were some sort of old-fashioned Lear. And Sandel is too weepy, his voice too histrionically sad to be believable.

Frustrating as these flaws might be, the production is well worth seeing. For it is more about fighting for life than weeping over death. And both these characters know how to land a punch.

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Lee Williams