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This week at the Wilcox Blackbox Theater, the Princeton Shakespeare Company presents “Elizabeth Rex,” written by playwright Timothy Findley and directed by Ryan Fauber ’15. PSC’s stunning show features an authentic set and varied props, tastefully selected sound effects and several strong performances. The play begins with Queen Elizabeth struggling to decide whether she should spare or execute the Earl of Essex, an ex-lover-turned-traitor. The Queen seeks refuge with William Shakespeare and his actors to lighten her spirits. Their conversations shed light on the roles of gender and love in early 17-century England. Although this play is set during Elizabeth’s reign, it was actually written in 2001. The play provides an evening of fine entertainment.

The first aspects of the production that the audience notices are the set and props. The Blackbox Theater is not particularly large, but its size suits the play well. The play is set entirely in a barn, and the compact size of the stage creates a feeling of closeness among the characters. Heated arguments between actors escalate quickly, and the small space enhances the tension — at times actors yell at each other nose-to-nose. Seating Queen Elizabeth in the middle of the stage with the other characters surrounding her emphasizes her power and dignity. The sparse barn furnishings are extremely well-designed, from the wooden table and chairs to the candles flickering in lanterns hanging from the ceiling. Fauber and prop/graphics designer Sarah Cuneo ’15 have succeeded marvelously in arranging the simple yet realistic set and props that effectively transport the audience to Elizabethan England.

The cast successfully employs the set and props to deliver standout performances. The play starts rather slowly with short conversations among the acting troupe. The production then gets more interesting with the entrance of Queen Elizabeth I and her entourage. Maeve Brady ’15 embodies Elizabeth’s transformation from regal and reserved ruler to relatable and betrayed human being. When Brady enters, she assumes an air of superiority, but by the end of the play her character has revealed a more vulnerable side. Brady shows the audience a complete spectrum of emotions. The Queen is a complex character; she demands obedience from her fellow characters and exerts a commanding presence, but she also fears that she will be judged as a monster after her death.

These shifts in Elizabeth’s character are due in part to actor Ned Lowenscroft, played by Eamon Foley ’15.  Lowenscroft is perhaps the most serious character on stage — he has contracted a fatal disease and knows he does not have much time to live. As a result, Lowenscroft sees the darker sides of situations and is preoccupied with death. His imminent demise also makes him the most outspoken character; Lowenscroft is not afraid to state his mind to the queen. In one instance, he agrees to teach Elizabeth how to be a woman if she will teach him how to be a man. Brady’s Elizabeth and Foley’s Lowenscroft present themselves as diametrically opposed characters: Elizabeth, a woman, has suppressed her femininity to rule her country like a man, while Lowenscroft, a man, has suppressed his masculinity in order to play female roles. Foley captures Lowenscroft’s angst about having an effeminate personality in a male body, sadly sharing his depressed musings with his pet bear — played by Frank Africano ’16 — his only source of companionship.

Sound effects, designed by Travis Henry ’13, also play a crucial role in this production. A bell tolls each hour until the end of the night, and each passing hour brings Elizabeth one step closer to making a final decision regarding Essex’s fate. When the clock strikes each hour, all action on stage stops as the characters listen for the time; this waiting creates a sense of urgency within the play. Each bell toll reminds Elizabeth and her companions that, despite Elizabeth’s attempts to delay the inevitable, she will soon need to face the consequences of her actions. Another sound motif is the barking of dogs, which marks the entrance of characters. A curfew is in effect, and the sound of the hounds heralds the arrivals of important characters who bring news to the party in the barn. With each hourly bell toll that passes without barking, Elizabeth laments: It means that another hour has elapsed with no news about Essex. The sounds of the bells and the hounds are critical to this production’s artistry.

Princeton Shakespeare Company deserves high praise for this refreshing theatrical production. The company stays true to the play as originally written by Findley and portrays the interactions between Elizabeth and her subjects realistically. From the visual and audio effects to the outstanding performances by the main character, this show is a resounding success.

 4.5 out of 5 paws.

Pros: Realistic Props; strong cast; excellent use of sound effects.

Cons: Begins rather slowly.