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‘Elizabeth Rex’ a regal portrait of the iconic English queen

Steven Sutcliffe performs role Ned an actor Shakespeare’s company Diane D’Aquilstars as Queen Elizabeth “Elizabeth Rex” Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

Steven Sutcliffe performs the role of Ned, an actor in Shakespeare’s company, and Diane D’Aquila stars as Queen Elizabeth in “Elizabeth Rex” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

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◆ In previews; opens Dec. 7 and runs through Jan. 22, 2012

◆ Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand on Navy Pier

◆ Tickets, $44-$75

◆ (312) 595-5600;

Updated: December 1, 2011 6:50AM

Forget about the recent massing of Shakespeare deniers inspired by the release of “Anonymous,” a film that has generated only the most temporary of teapot tempests. And rest assured that the legacy of the Bard of Avon is alive and well, with theater companies around the globe getting on with business, and with many of them, including the Chicago ShakespeareTheater, preparing to participate in the World Shakespeare Festival, part of the Cultural Olympiad complementing London’s 2012 Summer Olympic Games.

In the meantime, you can even get a sideways glimpse of Shakespeare himself by way of “Elizabeth Rex.” The work of Timothy Findley, the late Canadian playwright, it is a fictional riff that homes in on the monarch who was the Bard’s great patroness, and an actor in his troupe.

Findley’s drama, opening Dec. 7 in a Chicago Shakespeare production directed by Barbara Gaines, is set on the evening before the execution of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, Queen Elizabeth I’s trusted envoy and rumored lover, who has been charged with treachery. Perhaps as a distraction, the Queen has ordered a command performance by Shakespeare’s company. And during a post-show encounter with the company’s actor who specializes in the great female roles, she reveals a great deal more than might be expected.

Playing Queen Elizabeth here will be Diane D’Aquila, the American-bred, Canadian-based actress who originated the title role in the play’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival premiere in 2000, and then reprised her performance for a television adaptation. Co-starring with her will be Canada’s Steven Sutcliffe as Ned, the actor in whom she confides, and veteran Chicago actor Kevin Gudahl, as Shakespeare.

“I was a bit young for the role when I first played it,” said “D’Aquila. “But thanks to the dress and wig and makeup I was able to pull it off. Now, even though I’m still younger than Elizabeth, who is in her mid-sixties in this play, I have more life experience to help me, and it’s a rare chance to be able to repeat a role in a contemporary play.”

Born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, D’Aquila worked as a dresser at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis when Tyrone Guthrie himself urged her to get training at Canada’s National Theatre School. She has worked on U.S. stages over the years, but she has spent 15 seasons at the Stratford Shakespeare Theatre.

Elizabeth I is certainly among the most formidable women the actress has ever played.

“She was incredibly smart,” said D’Aquila. “She spoke six languages, including ancient Latin and Spanish. She was a great walker, and a skilled horsewoman. She had a love-hate relationship with her father, but was very much her father’s daughter. And while he was a great king, she was an even greater queen who even referred to herself as ‘the prince of Europe.’ Had she married she would have had an heir, but she also would have had to relinquish some of her power. And she knew how to wield power. The story goes that she so hated her enemy, Spain, that she once invited the Spanish ambassador into her private chambers, exposed her breast to him, and made him stand there til dawn. She herself was tireless, and had a reputation for being able to stand for hours.”

Elizabeth also was quite the politician, heading out on “progresses” — touring the country and talking to her subjects in the mode of today’s politicians who board buses for meet-and-greet trips.

“As for Essex, she sent him to Ireland to quell the rebellion there, but it turned out he was making deals with the Irish leaders without her approval,” D’Aquila explained. “He was quite the cheeky bastard it seems, so she called him back. And while she could have pardoned him, he had overstepped the mark and she called it treason.”

It is believed that the Shakespeare play Elizabeth actually ordered up for a court performance on the eve of the execution was ‘Twelfth Night,’ but Findley decided ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ was a better fit for his purposes.

As for the extreme look of Elizabeth as we know her from paintings, it was probably the result of her vanity in her later years.

“The makeup became her mask, and the dresses became more and more outrageous,” said D’Aquila. “At her death she is said to have had 3000 dresses in her closets. Of course there was no dry cleaning back then. so the undergarments were washed and everything else was just aired out.”

And was she the virgin queen?

“I doubt it,” said D’Aquila. “She certainly was a great flirt. And letters suggest she was truly in love with Essex. But clearly she was incredibly lonely. She was in great conflict between wanting to be a woman, and wanting to rule her country and keep it safe.”

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