Six Husbands of Elizabeth the Queen
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 5, 2008
It seems to me that if you're going to mess around with history, you ought to come up with alternatives that are provocative, purposeful, or at least juicy. Playwright Robert Gulack attempts a rewrite of the life of England's Virgin Queen in his verse play Six Husbands of Elizabeth the Queen—along the lines that the title suggests—but the enterprise ultimately makes no interesting points about its subject. The best parts trace the actual historical record, while the made-up sections feel meandering and poorly thought out.
In addition to tampering with facts, Gulack has set himself another difficult goal in this work, which is to write what the press release says is "the first play ever written entirely in Shakespearian sonnet form." I don't know about the veracity of that claim, but I will say that in pitting himself against Shakespeare, Gulack—like so many other poet/playwrights before him—sets the bar impossibly high, with negative results. Gulack goes so far as to even put Shakespeare into his play, and to make any number of fairly direct references to the Bard's work (especially Hamlet: he has his narrator instruct another actor on how to play a scene, and in Act II one young female character wanders distraught and disheveled onto the stage, barefoot and singing, in an allusion to Ophelia's mad scene). Not surprisingly, nothing in Gulack's play approaches the brilliance of this antecedent; he'd be better off if he didn't keep reminding us by making so many comparisons.
The poetry itself is competent, and does indeed adhere to form. The rhymes are often pretty predictable, though, and most of the cast members—the one notable exception is Bruce Barton, as the "Chorus" or narrator—can't manage to keep the verse from sounding sing-songy.
The story covers Elizabeth I's life, beginning with the years when she was living, reasonably privileged but out of favor, during the reigns of her half-siblings Edward VI and Mary I. The section dealing with "Bloody" Mary's reign is far and away the most interesting and exciting part of the play, because the events it depicts (more or less accurately) are complex, compelling, and not so well-known. Once Elizabeth ascends the throne, though, near the end of the first act, Gulack starts to diverge from the factual record. Trouble is, though he adds some sex to Elizabeth's life, he doesn't bring in enough to keep us engaged. He provides her with a series of husbands, and even a healthy son (which leaves later plot machinations involving Mary, Queen of Scots without their bearings). His Elizabeth is willful and capricious but not passionate or particularly courageous. I kept waiting for parallels to her famous father's multiple marriages but, apart from their number, I found none. And even the number is a red herring, as it turns out: Gulack only gives his Queen four husbands (the other two are metaphorical ones announced to us at the end—talk about anti-climax).
It's all very dissatisfying, and director Cynthia Granville and her cast do little to render it otherwise. Katharine Barron may have the makings of a sturdy Queen Bess within her, but she seemed under-rehearsed at the performance reviewed and frequently at sea with a character whose motivations are often difficult to understand. Among the supporting cast, Nancy Elton as Queen Mary and Tarek Khan as Robert Dudley fare the best.
The play is staged with economy on a mostly bare stage, with the actors simply costumed. A more observant eye to accessorizing might be useful: I was particularly struck by the fact that Queen Mary was garbed in lush black velvet and layers of jewels while her successor Elizabeth remained in a simple black shift with nary a trace of regalia for most of the play.
This production is the second in New York City for the Westchester County-based group The Supporting Players. It is, sadly, inauspicious.