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The queen won't quit 

A former editor said that we need to recognize that an arts community is made up of individuals. Shipping Dock's performances are making it hard not to. Their current work is a beauty; but I'll remember it as a harrowing example of an artist's overdoing the idea that the show must go on.

All this bravery and heroism at Shipping Dock Theatre is getting to sound like an unlikely play. Last production opened starring Fred Nuernberg, who quickly took over superbly from an actor who had sudden surgery. Now, in another work by the late Canadian playwright Timothy Findley, you can see an actress taking over for one who opened the production superbly minutes after having a heart attack.

On April 16, an almost full house was privileged to see a very impressive opening performance of Findley's Elizabeth Rex. Patricia Lewis gave a memorably strong, moving portrayal of the difficult title role. (She and her husband are close friends.) The cast and crew were partying exultingly in the lobby after the play knowing of nothing wrong, but I was told that Patti wasn't feeling well. I was led backstage to find her looking pale and weak, from heat exhaustion she thought; and I offered to drive her home to Geneseo, where we both live. Sunday, her husband phoned to tell me that she was in the hospital. She is now at home, recovering.

Starting this past weekend, Maureen Mines took over as Queen Elizabeth. Mines played the Bear opening night, hidden in the wonderful big costume from the original production at the Stratford Festival. I saw its premiere there and bought the DVD of the televised version, because this is my favorite Findley play.

Mines (who additionally has the task of handling Shipping Dock's press releases) has received very favorable reviews for her acting in other plays, and I was not surprised to hear that she is also an asset to this excellent version of Elizabeth Rex.

But the play is more about theater itself than royalty. We know that Elizabeth I really did command Shakespeare's troupe to perform for her on the night before her favorite, Lord Essex, was executed for treason. Shakespeare's patron, Lord Southampton, was also imprisoned in the Tower of London with Essex. This play has the actors gathered after playing Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing in a barn where the Queen joins them, distressed and seeking distraction.

You'll note that the title means "Elizabeth the King"; Elizabeth Regina would mean Queen Elizabeth. To serve as her antagonist, Findley invents Ned Lowenscroft, a brilliant actor who plays adult women in Shakespeare's company and is dying of "the pox." Resigned to dying before he can play Cleopatra, which Shakespeare is writing with him in mind, Ned is unafraid to confront the Queen. After baiting one another, they agree to a challenge: He will teach her how to grieve like a woman, if she will show him how to die like a man.

A large cast fills in the drama, but it centers on this duel. Patricia Lewis was mercurial, touching, regal, vulnerable, and powerful as the distraught monarch. I hope to see Mines' take on the Queen. David Jason Kyle's Ned is equally nuanced, alternately pathetic and grand as the expressive actor obviously able to portray women without artificiality or affectation. This unlikely duo carries the drama, fascinatingly taking it to unexpected places.

Standouts among the many others are Vicki Casarett as the old wardrobe lady, and Ken Klamm as Jack Edmond, the virile Irish leading man. James Bligh is touching as the pretty young actor who plays girls onstage and cares for Ned (in both senses of the phrase). Billy DeMetsenaere is amusing as the elderly clown who started as a boy actor playing girls. And S. Michael Smith is disconcertingly powerful as the crafty Lord Robert Cecil. Handsome young Peter Cayer isn't quite authoritative-seeming as Will Shakespeare.

Since the opening night performance went so well, I expect Elizabeth Rex to be a great success for Shipping Dock. Kerry Young's direction keeps it constantly involving and exciting. P. Gibson Ralph, Kate Sweeney, and Leah Maxwell's sets, lighting, and costumes, respectively, make it one of this theater's best-looking productions. But my former editor is right: It is most remarkable as an individual human-interest story.

Elizabeth Rex, by Timothy Findley, directed by Kerry Young, plays at Shipping Dock Theatre in the Visual Studies Workshop building, 31 Prince Street, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through May 8. Tickets $20 to $22; $12 students. 232-2250, www.shippingdocktheatre.org

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