Elizabeth: Heart of a King

Lorella Loftus' ambitious new bio-play boasts strong performances by the three women portraying the Virgin Queen

The three faces of E.: (l-r) Angela Loftus, Lorella Loftus, and Jennifer Underwood
The three faces of E.: (l-r) Angela Loftus, Lorella Loftus, and Jennifer Underwood (Photo courtesy of The Vortex)

The Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd., 478-5282
Through Jan. 26
Running time: 2 hr., 30 min.

To the editors of the Wikipedia page "Cultural depictions of Queen Elizabeth I of England": Please add three more stars to the firmament that boasts such twinklers as Sarah Bernhardt, Bette Davis, and Judi Dench. Elizabeth may have lived over four centuries ago, but that fiery redhead is excellently revived this month with powerful performances from the three virgin queens of Lorella Loftus' ambitious new bio-play, Elizabeth: Heart of a King.

Drawing from the robust Tudor historical fiction genre, the play is a life-sized triptych that features Angela Loftus (the playwright's daughter) as Lady Elizabeth; Lorella Loftus as middle-aged Elizabeth Regina; and Jennifer Underwood as Gloriana, her majesty in the winter years. Loftus uses short vignettes to chart a course through Elizabeth's life, mostly focusing on (and imagining details about) the old maid's fraught love affairs, though the audience is also treated to a buffet of characters courtesy of the flexible ensemble cast, including papa Henry VIII, Marys Tudor and Queen of Scots, and advisor William Cecil. Individually, the scenes are tight and engaging, but they eventually feel like dots in a pointillist painting that never quite comes into focus; without a major dramatic arc, the play quickly loses forward momentum.

Eight actors, most of whom are seated onstage, play all the characters who drift through Elizabeth's life, through doubling not unlike what the queen might have seen onstage in her day. (Nikki Zook makes a particularly stunning turn as both Marys.) Director Karen Jambon uses the Vortex's small stage effectively, but inconsistencies in the actors' accents occasionally create disruptive moments.

For an Elizabethan period drama, the design is remarkably stark; you won't find lace ruffs or gold leaf facades here. Ann Marie Gordon's simple set and Pam Fletcher Friday's monochromatic costumes create a blank slate for the vignettes. The versatile cast, Patrick Anthony's moody lighting, and a few well-placed accessories are all we need to imagine the court's pomp. Though David DeMaris' Renaissance music adds to the illusion, his video design – images of Elizabeth, rose gardens, and Tudor architecture – is distracting.

But Elizabeth's greatest strength lies in the actresses who share the titular role. Each brings something different to the part, dramatizing the evolution we all experience as we age. The younger Loftus' pre-coronation Elizabeth is sweet and vulnerable, but reveals her stubbornness in raging soliloquies; the elder Loftus, as charismatic queen, is at one moment cheerful, then instantly irate; and Underwood carefully descends from headstrong monarch to tired old woman. The Elizabeths are united under a recurring quandary: Is it possible to be a woman and a queen? Though she "earns her place among the glorious" in the end, it seems that Elizabeth ranked the love of her people over the love of men.

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Elizabeth: Heart of a King, Austin theatre, Lorella Loftus, Vortex Repertory Company, Angela Loftus, Jennifer Underwood, Nikki Zook, Karen Jambon, Ann Marie Gordon, Pam Fletcher Friday, Patrick Anthony, David DeMaris

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