The Women’s Voices Theater Festival: ‘texts&beheadings/ElizabethR’ at The Folger Theatre

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“The past cannot be cured” is a phrase attributed to Queen Elizabeth I (ElizabethR). But it certainly can be revisited. And that revisit comes some 400 years after her death. It is texts&beheadings/ElizabethR a distinctive, quite absorbing production in its world premiere at the Folger Theatre. It is from the New York-based Compagnia de’ Colombari.

Created and directed by Karin Coonrod texts&beheadings/ElizabethR succeeds often enough, to give close unfettered personal connections with Elizabeth I (1533-1603) through her own words (text) based upon her letters, speeches, poems and even prayers. There are also bits and pieces of prose from those who wished her a short life through their verbal stings, insults, insurrections, attempts on her life and even excommunication from the Pope.

From Left: Monique Barbee, Christina Spina, Ayeje Feamster, and Juliana Francis Kelly. Photo by Teresa Wood.
From Left: Monique Barbee, Christina Spina, Ayeje Feamster, and Juliana Francis Kelly. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Coonrod selected a wide swath of penetrating, muscular, biting passages written by Elizabeth in her long life as well as some coyer, carefully crafted extracts. Over the course of an effortlessly realized 60 minutes, the audience comes up-close to the Monarch’s very own unrestrained points-of-view. There are no intermediaries or meddlesome interventions from others. It is a rather stimulating piece of hagiography especially for those with deep interest in Elizabeth and her times.

Texts&beheadings/ElizabethR is a “fractured portrait,” as Coonrod describes in her director’s program notes:

“Having had the pleasure and privilege to become immersed in Elizabeth I’s wordplay, we are very excited to bring the secrets of our findings to an audience. Elizabeth takes what she is handed and creates a world where the greatest poets breathe. Catching her spirit enlarges our own experience.”

Historically, Elizabeth is the only surviving child of King Henry VIII by his second wife Anne Boleyn, who King Henry later had beheaded. Elizabeth’s early life is far from the Royal life of luxury she would later have. Her ascension to the English Throne would not have been something that “Big Data” with all its algorithms, if it existed back then, would have predicted as a likely outcome. Ah, how human nature can thankfully make long odds and predictive mathematics seem surmountable.

There are four fascinating actors to watch at the core of text&beheadings. They each play a particular piece of Elizabeth. Each has the opportunity to become a distinctive presence representing different aspects of the Monarch. (OK, let me mix media here as I think of I’m Not There – a biographical film about Bob Dylan).

Each of the actors portrays a different age of the Queen represented through bands of time. The time bands embody Elizabeth from her early to teen childhood (Cristina Spina, the most petite of the four actors), her young adult/early years of her reign (Monique Barbee), her middle years (Ayeja Feamster) and nearing the end of her monarchy and life (Juliana Frances-Kelly).

When not the “featured” Elizabeth, the three other actors become a Greek Chorus supporting the featured Elizabeth. Singly, each has an untouchable royal essence through precise, deliberate movements and facial expressions along with a verbal mannerisms. (The often down-turned mouth of Frances-Kelly was especially persuasive as was the alto voice presentations of Feamster). The attitude of each Elizabeth had the necessary condescending feature of those born to reign over others; markedly that of Barbee.

The royal quartet is stately from the moment they step into view walking onto the Folger stage ever so majestically, one-by-one. Slowly each takes a seat on a ladder-back high, wooden “thrown” with a gaze of quiet hauteur along with delightfully carried-out hand and finger movements; placing their hands “just so” on their laps or thighs. And all with the house-lights up. Only after all four appear without making eye contact with one-another, but only with the audience as their subjects, do the house lights dim. In essence, they have become a four-sided, solid sculpture with unencumbered command of the Folger stage. (a special tip-of-the-hat to movement coach Adrian Silver).

We then begin to meet the individual ElizabethR’s through four “games” or acts. Each game has straight-forward linguistic powers tied to the chronological age of Elizabeth represented. Beyond powers of the tongue, the audiences also comes to know many a beheading, whether deserved or not, of those who plotted against the Queen. It matters not they be a long-time adversary, or powerful one-time allied advisors, counselors, and even ex-BFF’s and family. Crossing her had serious consequences. Even the Pope of those days does not escape her pointed sarcasm.

The production action is most often of a verbal nature, rather than say, visible high energy sword play or observable punishments of miscreants. “Violence” is of word and off-stage sound effects with the actors making dramatically presentations of gestures to add pop and visual interest. To lighten the verbal beheadings, they are several scenes of derisive levity including one mocking moment when all the dozens of male suitors who have tried and failed to woe The Virgin Queen into marriage are represented in a conga line composed of only the four female actors. Bravo!

John Conklin’s scenic design permits the audience to concentrate on the words and the actors. The set is simple and effective. It is basically four high ladder-back, gold-hued, wooden chairs representing thrones placed downstage. Upstage, is a large opening which often provides a color coding for the happenings from Peter Ksander’s effective lighting grid. Ksander’s lighting choices feel the set and audience eyes with high gloss deep crimson, blood orange, golden hues and powerful scarlets and vermilion. Gina Leishman added dramatic flair with her original musical compositions underpinning a number of scenes and acts.

From Left: Christina Spina and Ayeje Feamster. Photo by Teresa Wood
From Left: Christina Spina and Ayeje Feamster. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Oana Botez dresses the four Elizabeth’s not with the starchy full neck ruff I am familiar with, but with more calculated, stately brocade gowns. Each gown is specific to age range of a particular Elizabeth. There is high, back-of-the-neck fan collar for Monique Barbee, a square low-neckline gown for Ayeja Feamster, and high neckline Tudor round collar for Juliana Frances-Kelly. Christina Spina’s gown is a demure youthful number.

This production is presented as a part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival.

For all I enjoyed text&beheading with its rhetorical flair and acting prowess, I suspect for those less familiar with the life and times of Elizabeth I, the production might seem a fuzzy blur of words.  There is a dearth of context and dramatic tension for those not well-initiated in the saga of Elizabeth’s reign. While for those familiar with and in understandable awe of Queen Elizabeth I’s survival and achievements this production will be appealing and fresh.

Running Time: 60 minutes with no intermission.

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Texts&beheadings/ElizabethR plays through October 4, 2015 at The Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library—201 East Capitol Street, SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 544-7077, or purchase them online.

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After its Folger run, Texts&beheadings/ElizabethR heads off to BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) for already sold-out performances beginning October 21, 2015.

RATING: FOUR-AND-A-HALF-STARS9.gif