A well-engineered, engrossing and atmospheric take on Elizabeth I's conflict between being a woman, and being a Sovereign.
The story takes place on the night before the dawn execution for treason of Robert, Earl of Essex. Shakespeare and his company of actors are at court, under curfew in a barn, with the Queen through her restless night as she struggles with the decision she has made to behead her beloved "Robin".
On the sixteenth century stage the parts of women were played by men; the only woman in the company is the seamstress who makes and repairs the costumes. The Queen is intrigued by the nature of the men that play these roles, and whether their 'essence' is truly that of a man, or of a woman. In part to entertain and divert the Queen who is tormented by her decision to execute Essex, and in part to illuminate the question that so intrigues her, members of the company recite and play short vignettes from various of Shakespeare's plays. In this vein they challenge the Queen with provocative questions that would be inadmissible at any other time or place, and reveal their sympathy for Essex. At times the Queen commands and threatens regally, at times she drops her guard and confesses her womanly feelings. There is a powerful counterpoint for the Queen who feels the sexual passion of a woman, but must put that aside to act in the interest of the State - or, as she said to the army at Tilbury: "I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a King". Here, poignantly, she says to the male actor: "If you will teach me how to be a woman . . . I will teach you how to be a man."
Meanwhile, Shakespeare is taking notes, perhaps for some future play....but it will not be performed in his lifetime, nor the Queen's.
The set is somewhat stagy, but creates good atmosphere; the Shakespearean quotes blend well with the play's own dialogue. Brent Carver gives a powerful and convincing performance as the actor who plays the female parts, and Diane d'Aquila is commendable as Elizabeth. Overall, an engrossing production that makes you feel you are in the rafters, secretly watching an intimate and revealing behind-the-scenes moment of history.
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