About 10 minutes before texts&beheadings/ElizabethR made its world premiere on the Folger Theatre’s stage, the first queen appeared. She sat, scowling in a gown that read more McQueen than Elizabethan, bringing a hush over the audience. A brief while later the second queen emerged, followed by a third and a fourth, all equally solemn and seated in identical thrones.
The four Elizabeth I’s of Karin Coonrod’s one-hour play—assembled from the English queen’s own letters, prayers, and speeches as well as other source documents and original (sometimes very contemporary) dialogue—each take turns in the spotlight while the others serve as a kind of Greek chorus. The work is frenetic, bouncing from monologues to elegiac songs to frenzied “games” that see the four actresses climb on chairs, remove their shoes, and lay prostrate on the stage floor. That last item seems most appropriate for a piece with a name like texts&beheadings/ElizabethR, but the work is hardly modernized. You won’t see any of the Elizabeths using a smartphone.
The play is broken down into four movements that cover Elizabeth rejecting her suitors; contemplating in the Tower her possible death at the hands of her sister Mary; praying as an aging queen; rallying her troops (“I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too”); grappling with the beheadings of her mother and stepmothers; and preparing to deliver her Golden Speech. The lack of a chronology can make the play a bit confusing for those not familiar with the virgin queen (especially a section on lesser-known allegations of sexual abuse at the hands of Thomas Seymour), and the energy wanes when the women break the fourth wall to chattily set the scene. But these moments pass quickly, giving way to some beautiful aural and visual moments, like when the four queens sing in lightly accompanied harmony.
Coonrod wisely uses the historic material—some of which she pulled from Folger’s own library—for more than just straight recitation. Some of the most vile and ridiculous anti-Elizabeth propaganda is deployed for comic effect, with the actresses literally throwing each insult into the front row; the reading of a wardrobe account as three of the actresses pantomime dressing a stone-faced fourth acutely visualizes the actual weight Elizabeth physically carried as a queen (by the second set of sleeves, my arms felt claustrophobic).
As the Elizabeths, Monique Barbee, Ayeje Feamster, Juliana Francis-Kelly, and Cristina Spina gamely take on the multiple roles of actress, narrator, singer, dancer, and stage hand. The play doesn’t bother with British accents—in fact, Italian actress Spina does nothing to conceal hers. The casting of Feamster, an African-American actress, goes even further in presenting Elizabeth as a multifaceted woman. The four women make their own Elizabeth—soft and sad, defiant and paranoid, young and intense, religious and mournful—and enhance it with their own gifts (Barbee in particular has a lovely voice).
Elizabeth I has been the subject of numerous books, operas, TV shows, and films, many of which focus on her complicated romance with Robert Dudley. texts&beheadings/ElizabethR, presented as part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, touches on that relationship, but above all, it attempts to convince the audience of Elizabeth’s supreme intellect, fierce independence, and bravery in the face of death—all in 60 minutes. In that short amount of time, Coonrod isn’t radically changing people’s perception of a woman who has been scrutinized for the past 480 years. Instead, texts&beheadings/ElizabethR packages and presents Elizabeth’s words in as many ways as it can to immerse the audience in her life. If you can stop flinching at the sound of a blade whooshing toward a doomed neck—a sound cue that regularly punctuates the play’s vignettes—Coonrod’s done her job.
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