Stillwater Theatre’s high-octane production of Italian playwright Dario Fo’s stinging political satire Elizabeth: Almost by Chance a Woman, staged with admirable wit and imagination by Matthew Earnest, is a must-see comic drama that will surely put Meredith College’s resident professional theater company on the Triangle theatrical map. As play unfolds in the rather crowded royal bedchambers of England’s Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), in a succession of increasingly surreal scenes from the fevered mind of its title character, Elizabeth becomes a veritable juggernaut.
The (not-so-)Virgin Queen (played with great gusto by Meredith senior theater major Laura Jernigan) is a certifiable paranoid personality with a plethora of real enemies. She obsesses over her cousin (the never-seen) Mary Stuart (1542-87), also known as “Mary, Queen of Scots,” whom she regrets sending to the chopping block, and her (alleged) former lover, (the never-seen) Robert Devereux (1566-1601), the second Earl of Essex, whose calamitous attempt in 1600 to foment a rebellion against the queen resulted in his trial, imprisonment, and beheading in 1601. Another of Elizabeth’s prize paranoid delusions is that premier English dramatist William Shakespeare has modeled the dithering title character in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark after her royal highness.
There’s an old saying among the McDowell womenfolk that when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping. In Elizabeth, the title character opts instead for an extreme makeover, 17th century-style. Enter the wonderfully weird royal beautician Mama Zaza (Triangle theater veteran David Klionsky, in the drag role originally played by dramatist Dario Fo himself).
Laura Jernigan is every inch a wide-eyed mad monarch, mercurial in her mood swings, beset by faithless lovers, and relentlessly stalked by a succession of assassins dispatched by her enemies, both foreign and domestic. David Klionsky, with his constantly changing accents and five o’clock shadow, gives a scene-stealing over-the-top performance as a London beauty operator who is a ham sandwich and a whole plate of deviled eggs short of a picnic.
Meredith senior theater and graphic design major Maureen Price gives a personable performance as Martha, the queen’s increasingly appalled chambermaid; Zach Thomas is good as Egerton, the head of Elizabeth’s secret police; Ryan Nazionale imbues Thomas, Elizabeth’s latest boy toy, with plenty of personality; and Matthew Ryan Limerick adds a menacing cameo as an Assassin. Morgan Hoffman and Brett Stegall are good as Elizabeth’s tough leather-clad Guards, and Ashley Phillips and Stacie Whitley make a most expressive Chorus.
Matthew Earnest, who is artistic director of the Deep Ellum Theatre Ensemble in New York City, orchestrates the action of Elizabeth with a master’s touch, so that contemporary comparisons can be made to paranoid political leaders with secret police at their beck and call. Set designer Deb O and lighting designers Jamie Cuthrell and Deb O recreate the royal bedroom in telling detail, with a canopied bed and a large wooden horse (possibly meant to evoke that nasty rumor about the inglorious demise of Russian Empress Catherine the Great?); and costume designer Jamie Cuthrell outfits the cast in an eye-catching array of Renaissance outfits. Original music by Julie Florin puts the cherry of the top of this splendid sundae of a comic drama, which will surely entertain and delight broad-minded audiences.
Stillwater Theatre presents Elizabeth: Almost by Chance a Woman Tuesday-Saturday, Sept. 25-29, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 30, at 2 p.m. in the Studio Theatre in Jones Hall at Meredith College, 3800 Hillsborough St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($10 students and seniors). 919/760-8757 or http://still-water-theatre.org/cms_dir/ Note: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh, NC (http://www.artsaccessinc.org/) will audio-describe the 8 p.m. Sept. 29th performance. Queen Elizabeth I: http://www.elizabethi.org/. Dario Fo: http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1997/fo-bio.html (Nobel Prize).