I'm a sucker for historical dramas and biographies. Add in the promise of some social/political overtones, and my ears really perk up. Throw in an enigmatic and powerful figure like Queen Elizabeth I as the subject matter, and I'm practically beside myself.
Needless to say, I hoped to enjoy the World Premiere of Elizabeth: Heart of a King, now playing Austin's Vortex Theatre as it had many elements I generally gravitate towards. However, though Queen Elizabeth may be one of the most successful monarchs in history, Elizabeth: Heart of a King does not fare so well.
The problems are mostly due to playwright Lorella Loftus. While I applaud Loftus's effort in bringing a historical character as interesting as Elizabeth to the stage, she has clearly bit of more than she can chew. Granted, biographies are a tricky business. It's difficult if not impossible to squeeze all the important details of someone's life into two to three hours. That's why the best biographies focus on a pivotal moment or crisis in the life of the figure (Spielberg's Lincoln and Elizabeth starring Cate Blanchett immediately come to mind).
However, Loftus strays from the tried and true approach as she tries to use 36 short vignettes and scenes to encompass Elizabeth's life from age 13 to her death at age 69. While the lengthy timeline does allow for Loftus and three different actresses (including Loftus herself) to play Elizabeth at different points in her life-youth, middle-aged, and elderly-the interesting, original, and inspired choices end there. Due to The Lofty goals of the play, many important moments in Elizabeth's life (the religious turmoil of England, England's troubled relations with France and Spain, various attempts to assassinate the Queen, and her execution of her cousin Mary Queen of Scots) are given very little attention.
Indeed, the play seems severely unfocused. There is no clear beginning, middle, and end, nor any rising action, climax, and falling action. If I had to select any theme that Loftus does seem to focus on at all, it would have to be Elizabeth's sexlife. There's lots of talk about her affair with Thomas Seymour, her courtship with the French Duke of Anjou, her long affair with Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leichester, and her relationship with Robert Devereux, Dudley's stepson. I'm still puzzled by why Loftus focuses so much energy on Elizabeth's lovelife. I personally find what she did with her power to be far more interesting that what she did or did not do with her loins. Focusing on her constant need of a relationship, however dysfunctional, belittles and diminishes the importance of Queen, turning her into a nymphomaniac instead of a political force of nature and a feminist icon.
Loftus's writing is also affected by some very troubling prose. Her writing has that fake fantasy tone that we assume the Brits, particularly those in the 1500s and 1600s, must have had when speaking. In one scene, the Duke of Anjou asks Elizabeth in an exaggerated French accent, "Are you interested in marr-i-age avec moi?" to which she replies giddily, "Methinks I am, sir, methinks I am." In another, Elizabeth's advisor, William Cecil hangs his head low and says in an aside (of which there are many), "She torments me so." While Loftus may be trying for authenticity, her dialogue feels artificial at best and cheesy at worst. If the unintentional camp and cheesiness were embraced, we might have a drastically different but thoroughly enjoyable show on our hands.
Sadly, the majority of the cast and crew isn't up to the task of brining Elizabeth to life either. Director Karon Jambon seems to be on auto-pilot. The pacing is slow, there are few interesting pictures and movements in her staging, and it seems like the actors haven't received much guidance regarding who these characters are and how to bring them to the stage effectively. The video design by David DeMaris features several slides of portraits and locations that sadly do not add anything to the story and have no continuity of style between them, and the costume design by Pam Fletcher Friday is very disappointing. I understand that the Vortex is a non-profit, and non-profits are often plagued by budget issues, but Friday's decision to dress a costume drama in all blacks with a few shoddily constructed embellishments does nothing to enhance the show and often distracts from the scenes. One men's lace collar constructed out of two napkins still sticks out in my mind for all the wrong reasons. I argue that it is impossible to do a costume drama without eye-catching costumes, and I wonder if any attempt was made to contact other production companies like The Baron's Men or Austin Shakespeare to secure donated or rented pieces.