Gender Bender: Queen Elizabeth wants to make you a man.
Gender Bender: Queen Elizabeth wants to make you a man.

What to look at, once you’re done marveling at how efficiently the Keegan Theatre crew has turned the barnlike Church Street Theater into the actual barn where the events of Elizabeth Rex take place? Try the dramaturg’s program note, which lets on that this untidily literate historical soap opera of a play—about a wartime leader wrestling with personal dilemmas and affairs of state—had its premiere way back in 2000.

Tantalizing, if only because you have to wonder how the story’s focus, which seems a bit diffuse, might have shifted or tightened had it come along just a couple of years later—or whether, if the politically minded Canadian playwright Timothy Findley had lived long enough to see the Iraq War, he’d have felt inclined to revise.

The headstrong head of state here, of course, is England’s Elizabeth I, and the conflict that has her locking up her nobles and locking down her capital with a curfew is the Irish uprising of 1601—the one in which her sometime lover, the Earl of Essex, became so haplessly involved. So Essex is in the Tower, scheduled to part ways with his head in a few hours, while the Queen, looking to keep morbid thoughts at bay, occupies herself in the stables with…William Shakespeare and his company of players? Who sass her and bully her and teach her a lesson or two about how to live and how to love?

Not quite a diligently historical drama, then—though apparently the record does show that the real Elizabeth ordered up a Shakespeare play on the night in question.

And it’s that tidbit with which Findley has his entertaining brand of what-if fun. His setup: The curtain has come down late-ish (on Much Ado About Nothing, with all its gender-warrior pleasures); the curfew has trapped Shakespeare’s company on the palace grounds; and the queen, still unable to sleep, has demanded more distraction to keep from biting her nails to the bone. Cue a wee-hours clash of classes, wits, and quotes from the Bard’s best, all strung on an escalating argument between the iron-spined Elizabeth and one particularly irascible actor: Ned, the guy who’s just finished playing Much Ado’s sharp-tongued Beatrice, which is not at all an accident. He’s a sick-souled fellow, and as luck would have it, he’s also just terminally ill enough—with syphilis, because anything less fatal-attraction would presumably be too subtle—to tell his sovereign exactly what he thinks about her work-life balance issues.

Findley’s point, you see, is summed up all too neatly in a challenge Elizabeth issues to that actor, once he’s pointed out that her focus on national security has cost her a little something in the femininity department: “If you will teach me how to be a woman, I will teach you how to be a man.”

So what do they teach each other? Not much, as it turns out: Findley was a thoughtful writer, and a clever one, but here his philosophizing is less successful than his plotting. And though the inquiry is a tender one, rather than the confrontational conversation you’d get from a David Mamet or a Neil LaBute, I’m not sure there’s much to be learned about the bent of gender or the cost of leadership from Elizabeth Rex.

Note that even the play’s title, with its Latin masculine honorific, has been gender-queered; Findley was gay, publicly and nonchalantly, long before it was the shrug-making thing it’s become, which may account for both the play’s fumblingly earnest attempts at parsing its gender questions and the lyrical (if lightly stale) strain of AIDS metaphor that attends Ned’s storyline. (His dead lover, the one who gave him syphilis? One of Elizabeth’s soldiers, alas.)

Still, there’s plenty to enjoy about Susan Marie Rhea’s production, from its sharp, sinewy Elizabeth (courtesy of Kerry Waters Lucas) to its quietly humane Shakespeare (a pleasantly low-key Robert Leembruggen) to the eloquence of Tony Angelini’s active but unfussy sound design. Two members of Rhea’s ensemble—Jon Townson as an embittered Irishman who reminds Elizabeth painfully of her impetuous Essex, and Tiffany Gardner, poised and radiant as one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting—do standout work in an overstuffed supporting cast. (This was a Stratford Festival play originally, so a shortage of spear-carriers was presumably no issue.)

And in two small and marvelous moments, Elizabeth Rex caused me to catch my breath. Both of them, no surprise, involve its title figure, and the first is a moment of vulnerability staged and scripted to startle, a stripping-off of armor both physical and metaphysical.

The other, and it’s at the crux of what Findley wants to say about Elizabeth’s unhappy compromises, takes its power from one of those almost-too-clever shout-outs to the Shakespearean canon. Waters Lucas extends a hand to a fool, and lifts a line from one of the Bard’s monarchs—and in six words she says all there is to say about being pushed to the brink, knowing that if you break, the world will too. It’s devastating in the original, and it’s pretty damn wonderful here, too.