A beautiful, moving look @ identity & the inevitable tick tock of life – East Side Players’ Elizabeth Rex

ERI had the pleasure of being back at Todmorden Mills Papermill Theatre last night for East Side Players’ production of Timothy Findley’s Elizabeth Rex, directed by Jan Francies.

A history-inspired, memory play, Elizabeth Rex presents William Shakespeare as our host, as he remembers an evening in a barn with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men after a royal performance of Much Ado About Nothing 15 years earlier. It is the evening of his own death; in the memory, it is the night before Elizabeth’s ex-lover Essex goes to the axe for leading an uprising against her. In the memory, the men are visited by a restless Queen – and throughout the night, Elizabeth, Shakespeare and actor Ned Lowenscroft (famous for playing women) exchange quips and debate the nature of identity from the various angles of sex, gender, politics, art and power. All played out with the ever-present chiming of the clock – reminding all that time is running out.

Francies has an excellent cast for this journey: Lydia Kiselyk’s Elizabeth I is layered with all the complexity and power of this fascinating monarch. She is sharp-witted and regal, suffering no fools; yet open to council even as she is torn between emotion for her former lover Essex, and duty to her position and country. Michael Harvey gives us a lovely Ned Lowenscroft, with a rapier wit, a diva’s demand for perfection and an unapologetic love of men, coupled with vulnerability and empathy, and the haunting knowledge that his time and life are ebbing away as he struggles with his own impending death from “the pox” (syphilis), contracted from an evening with a handsome Irish captain. Christopher Irving brings us a passionate, cerebral and conflicted Shakespeare, performing a careful balancing act with the often opposing demands of art and politics, even as he comes to terms with his own feelings for the young Earl of Southampton. Other cast stand-outs include Malorie Mandolidis, who is a delight as the far-sighted company seamstress and den mother Kate Tardwell; and Paddy Cardarelli is endearing and lovable as veteran player Percy Gower, who loves to tell how he once intoxicated men with his portrayal of women before he came to be a character actor in his advanced years.

In addition to the symbolism of the tick tock of the clock, we are reminded of humanity’s inescapable final destination through the bear that Lowenscroft rescued from the pits, which moans with painful remembrance when the dogs bark, the hounds constantly nipping at its heels, even if just in its mind. And there is a beautiful moment of compassion and comfort between two key players, mirrored by one of the actors holding the bear as the dogs bay. Findley also provides a thought-provoking image of a present-day ‘pox’: Lowenscroft’s pox sores resemble those of AIDS-induced Kaposi’s sarcoma, his colleagues asking if he knew how, and from whom, he came by the disease.

With shouts to set designer David August and lighting designer Clay Warner for the transformation of the Papermill stage into the Queen’s barn, the warm glow of candlelight on wood, the metal of the brazier and tack, and the use of the top loft space opening in that gorgeously mottled red brick back wall; and to the exquisite period costumes by Alex and Carmen Amini of Chifforobe.

East Side Players’ Elizabeth Rex is a beautiful, moving and finely acted exploration of identity, and the inevitable and finite tick tock of life. This play is not produced often, so it’s well worth the trip to the Papermill Theatre – the show runs until June 7.

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Toronto Fringe – the final five

With limited time on my hands and five vouchers left of my 10-play pass, I needed to hop to it and see shows during the closing weekend of Toronto Fringe. Here are the last five shows I saw, in order of attendance:

Sour Grapes: I’d seen playwright/actor Allan Turner perform as Mullet the Clown before, but never as another character. Playing the trickster Coyote with a decidedly cranky, nihilist edge, Turner took us on a funny, cerebral and philosophical journey as Coyote experiences an existential crisis of sorts. Awesome work from the entire cast, which also included Chloe Payne (Clown), Darryl Pring (Doctor) and Dave McKay (Spider) – directed by Bruce Hunter.

Stealing Sam: Playwright/actor Steven Gallagher’s sharply funny and deeply moving one-man show about a man’s tribute to a dead ex-lover who died of AIDS. Directed by Darcy Evans, Gallagher had the audience laughing one moment and reaching for Kleenex the next as we followed him through the life and times of a gay man of a certain age, dealing with loss and modern-day dating. If you missed this show during its Fringe run, you can still catch Stealing Sam at The Best of Toronto Fringe.

This Play Is Like _____: Written and directed by Glenys Robinson, the company (Tiny House Productions) is made up entirely of members under 20 years old. Using shadow puppets to play out a legend and a live action present day story, the audience goes along on two young female hero’s journeys. Lovely work from the cast: Arden Dunlop, Kya Mosey, Ben Tersigni and Forest Van Winkle, and puppeteers Ana Ghookassian, Haruka Kanai, Patrick Kinhan and Yasaman Nouri, with vocals by Sarah Carmosino. Keep your eyes peeled for these talented, promising young talents. I’d fill in the blank with “Life.”

Fracture: Edmonton company the Good Women Dance Collective performed two pieces for this show: “Pod” (choreographed by Alida Nyquist-Schultz, and performed by Nyquist-Shultz and Ainsley Hillyard, with music by Piotr Grella-Mozejko) and “Shatterstate” (choreographed by Alison Kause, and performed by Kause, Kate Stashko and Alida Nyquist-Shultz, with music by Caleb Nelson). “Pod” was a sensual, otherworldly journey through creation and growth, with the two dancers responding very differently to the transition – creating both tension, intimacy and drama. “Shatterstate” explores perception and déjà vu – the dancers’, the audience’s – and how perspectives can diverge and intersect. Beautiful, cerebral, moving and sexy – Fracture moves on to the Winnipeg and Edmonton Fringe festivals. Definitely a company to watch out for.

Much Ado About Nothing: Shakespeare BASH’d unleashed the Bard upstairs at the Victory Café again this year, this time with the quip-exchanging, clueless wannabe lovers Beatrice and Benedick. Always a popular company, their shows consistently sell out – and I managed to squeeze in on the waiting list for their closing performance. Directed by Eric Double, and time-shifted nicely to post-WWII, this production boasts an amazing cast: Andrew Anthony, Andrew Gaboury, Ellen Hurley, Jamie Johnson, Elisabeth Lagerlöf, Milan Malisic, Brenhan McKibben, Jesse Nerenberg, Julia Nish-Lapidus, Kyle Purcell, David Ross, Amelia Sargisson and James Wallis. Miss them at Fringe? No worries, you can catch their fall production of Romeo and Juliet November 19-23 in the Junction at 3030 Dundas West (Toronto).

I wasn’t able to get in to see Jessica Moss’s one-woman show Polly Polly, but had great fun in the ticket line when Moss paid us a visit – with Timbits for us. Thanks, Jessica! Will do my best to catch Polly Polly at the Best of the Toronto Fringe.

Speaking of, you still have a chance to sample some of this year’s Toronto Fringe programming and perhaps see something you missed during the festival run – check out The Best of the Toronto Fringe, running July 17-31 at Toronto Centre for the Arts.