Credit: Liz Lauren

With our gender roles up for grabs, we would-be moderns are naturally fascinated by historical figures who had to negotiate—and, often enough, trade away—their sexual identities. The female historical figures in particular. Cleopatra is one, as indicated by the fuss Stacy Schiff provoked last year with her biography of the legendary Egyptian. England’s Queen Elizabeth I is very definitely another.

Henry VIII’s youngest daughter has become a trope, ironically, for becoming a trope. Writers like to deploy her as a metaphor for the tension between private and public selves, desire and statecraft, falling in love and ordering executions. Think of Judi Dench as the wised-up monarch in Shakespeare in Love, saying, “I know something of a woman in a man’s profession. Yes, by God, I do know about that.” Consider Cate Blanchett as the lively young queen in Elizabeth, becoming less and less herself until she disappears completely under the red wig, white greasepaint, and formidable ruff that define what might be called the Elizabethan brand. Same overall style as Bozo the Clown, yet far from funny.

Now add Diane D’Aquila as the restless, arrogant, agonized central character in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s fine new production of Elizabeth Rex.

Don’t expect to see the Virgin Queen freed from her pop iconography here. Playwright Timothy Findley opts wholeheartedly for the conventional wisdom, presenting Elizabeth as a woman torn along familiar seams. His approach is summed up by the glib paradox of the title: feminine Christian name grafted onto masculine honorific. (The allusion to Oedipus Rex is cute but meaningless, as far as I can see, since Elizabeth didn’t kill a parent, commit incest, or feel the need to put her eyes out as penance for her crimes.) Like Lady Macbeth, this queen has disavowed her womanish personal affections and put on a martial cruelty in the name of royal duty. Which isn’t all that interesting in itself. What’s interesting is the use to which Findley puts this walking cliche.

Elizabeth has condemned her beloved Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, for leading an attempted coup d’etat against her government. On the night before his beheading, Findley has her trying to distract herself by ordering Will Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, to perform a play—Much Ado About Nothing, as it happens, in which sophisticates Beatrice and Benedick must maintain public poses that preclude admitting their passion for each other.

Since a curfew has been imposed on London in anticipation of pro-Essex riots, a few ensemble members find themselves unable to get home. They’re put up for the night in the queen’s stables.

The stranded players include Shakespeare, but the focus is on Ned Lowenscroft, an actor (invented by Findley) who specializes in playing important female roles because women are banned from appearing on the professional stage. Accomplished, flamboyant, openly gay, and very close to the end of his tether thanks to a terminal case of the clap, Lowenscroft doesn’t stand on ceremony when Elizabeth shows up at the barn, postshow, looking for a way to pass the sleepless hours until Essex’s early-morning rendezvous with death. One queen engages the other, they strike up a dueling sort of relationship (once again, a la Benedick and Beatrice), and end up making a bargain. “If you will teach me how to be a woman,” Elizabeth tells Lowenscroft, “I will teach you how to be a man.”

Findley makes feints at profundity, what with Lowenscroft dying and Elizabeth’s psychic seams popping—and manages to come up with some nice passages, especially about the relative merits of knowing who you are versus indulging in a little creative forgetfulness. He also has an elegant hand when it comes to homosexuality, treating it as something akin to hair color in that it shows up differently in different characters rather than determining them. But his most important success lies in his ability to write juicy roles, large and small. An actor himself early on, Findley pretty much festoons Elizabeth Rex with potentially vivid turns.

And Barbara Gaines’s cast takes marvelous advantage of them all—from Bradley Armacost as an old company clown teetering amiably on the edge of senility to Andrew Rothenberg as an Irish actor who keeps a chip on his shoulder to divert us from the heart on his sleeve, and from Mary Ann Thebus playing a classic Shakespearean old lady a la Mistress Quickly or Juliet’s nurse to Kevin Gudahl playing Shakespeare the man in a fascinatingly meditative vein.

But at the center of it all are D’Aquila’s Elizabeth and Steven Sutcliffe’s Lowenscroft. The former is a somewhat baffled bull in an emotional china shop, the latter, well, a consummate actor—simultaneously filigreed and raw. Gaines has never been known for her minimalism, and there are some annoyingly self-conscious gestures in this production. Still, her work is unusually clean and clear overall, allowing the performers to perform. It works out beautifully.