One by one, four women, robed austerely yet somehow splendidly as well, stride slowly and regally into the light. Each pauses, takes a seat on one of four narrow throne-like chairs, and commences to coolly regard the audience, which is still lit by house lights, expectant, silent but for the occasional cough or sneeze. Thus Karin Coonrod’s texts&beheadings/ElizabethR immediately establishes its Queen Elizabeth I as a ruler truly of her people, a sovereign whose love for her subjects has, in her own assessment, never been equalled.
Over the ensuing hour a series of fractured readings from Elizabeth’s own letters, prayers, poems and speeches alternate with bits of narrative commentary, all enlivened by masque-like movement sequences (such as a literal parade of suitors), dance, humor, and song. Each actress in turn steps into the role of the Queen to dramatize one or another aspect of her life and reign. The play takes on Elizabeth’s imprisonment, her fraught dealings with her half-sister Mary Queen of Scots, sexist disrespect from contemporary rulers and commentators, pressure from her court to marry, and more.
A catalog of fancy clothes presented as gifts to Her Majesty becomes a funny, sweeping climax to this avant-garde but very entertaining one-act presented in English but with dollops of Italian and bits of French and Church Latin. Queenly quotations spoken early on reappear in context, helping to give structure to the non-traditional narrative. From “Strike in order not to be struck!” to “Henceforth I will wear no more cloth stockings!” the production brings Elizabeth’s personality craftily and colorfully to life, dozens of threads stitched artfully together by creator and director Coonrod and her Compagnia de’ Colombari into an elegant, cosmopolitan, gracefully energetic mini-biography.
Along with Oana Botez’s evocative costumes, Gina Leishman’s music plays no small part in the production’s success. From period polyphony to plaintive solo vocals to the occasional bluesy howl, it is expertly and beautifully fashioned and performed.
An inspired creative team combines with the superb talents of the four Elizabeths – Monique Barbee, Ayeje Feamster, Juliana Francis-Kelly, and Cristina Spina – to elevate a rather cerebral concept into an appropriately regal yet also meatily human jigsaw comedy-drama that’s funny, thoughtful, and informative. Legendary actresses have played Queen Elizabeth I on screen, from Bette Davis and Jean Simmons to Helen Mirren and Cate Blanchett. She is big enough for them all. Now Karin Coonrod proves the First Elizabeth can comfortably and entertainingly contain four portrayers at once on stage.
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