American Players Theatre’s ‘The Virgin Queen Entertains Her Fool’ entertains and startles – Isthmus

The phrase “peaceful transfer of power” occupies a lot of space in our collective consciousness these days, in ways we never would have expected just a few years ago. That’s in evidence in American Players Theatre’s current production of The Virgin Queen Entertains Her Fool, playing in the Touchstone theater through Sept. 19.

Directed by Aaron Posner, the strong cast encourages us to see chaos in the face of change at the highest levels of government as just the latest episode in the continuum of history. The Virgin Queen Entertains Her Fool unfolds to show a monarchy on the brink. 

Staging is simple: The action takes place in the queen’s spare but luxuriously appointed bedchamber. A window to the square below is suggested by lighting alone. Sound effects are used sparingly but effectively, letting us in on both the characters’ internal emotions and external perceptions. The small cast features Tracy Michelle Arnold as the dying but beloved queen of a fictional domain, and James DeVita, Josh Krause and Nancy Rodríguez as intimate members of her court.

Playwright Michael Hollinger writes in the program notes that he creates “Here-and-Now plays, and There-and-Then plays.” The Virgin Queen Entertains Her Fool is a “There-and-Then play,” which uses a fictional place and time (sometime in the Renaissance, somewhere in Europe) to help shine a light on what is happening in the here-and-now. We see a strong female leader, who although she has attained her office via birthright, has nevertheless had to perpetrate elaborate cover-ups in order to keep her lifetime position. The moniker “Virgin Queen” has endeared her to her subjects, but now, in her dying days, she faces a difficult choice. With no clear heir to the throne, it is up to her to anoint a successor. But every choice she has in front of her would generate a ripple of consequences. As the Queen’s last breath draws ever closer, her life and those of her closest associates will unravel in unexpected ways.

Krause revels in his role as Ermo the fool, a young man who has carved out a place close to the queen through his ability to use humor to touch her emotional needs. He is a rollickingly funny and physical actor who uses comedy to convincingly mask his character’s need for love. Arnold’s dying queen is a woman bored by power yet unable to give it up, even as she is chewed up from the inside by her lifetime of intrigue. DeVita’s Blanchard is a courtier whose life is enclosed in a box of his own creation. He steps carefully around the stage, trying to convince the dying monarch to make a decision which won’t result in the loss of his own head. Rodríguez, playing the Mistress of the Bedchamber, wears the thickest emotional mask of all the actors. Perhaps the Queen’s closest confidante, she hides her emotional center like a piece of coal under pressure, until everything, ultimately, unravels for everyone.

The 90-minute play has many laugh-out-loud moments, and the actors are adept at playing members of a royal court in a constant dance, fawning over the sovereign and playing games of court intrigue. The dialogue is witty and a bit bawdy, and the plot line builds tension steadily, revealing new facts throughout like a true-crime mystery. Though entertaining and funny, the humor is a distraction from what’s really happening. The play ends with a Shakespearean-inflected tragic climax that produced gasps among the audience. The scene produced such emotion that it was a bit of a shock when the cast members hopped up to smilingly take their bows.

As the audience filed out, I overheard more than one person say, “That was interesting.” The comment could be heard as damning with faint praise. But part of what made the play interesting is that we were not hit over the head with the allegorical connections to the Here-and-Now. We are left to think it over a while, perhaps on the hour-long drive back home from Spring Green.

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