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at the NoHo Arts Center

This Canadian import, written by Timothy Findley, deserves all the accolades it has garnered. Part homage to the Bard, part examination of complexities surrounding the character of Elizabeth I and her star-crossed relationship with the Earl of Essex, this magnificent production, superbly directed by Robert Mammana, begins with the ruminations of William Shakespeare on the eve of his death in 1616 and the plaintive song of a long-dead actor. Memories flood the gravely ill playwright, masterfully played by Jay Willick, as he returns to a night in 1601, when Elizabeth and her ladies visit him and his company. It's the eve of Essex's execution, condemned to death for treason by his former lover, and the Queen has come to divert her mind and her attention from the impending death. In a tour-de-force performance, Karesa McElheny embodies the regal bearing and inner conflicts of Elizabeth as she summons Shakespeare's actors to perform a comedy to distract her and assuage her grief. What she gets is something more. Like two duelists, Elizabeth and a dying gay actor, Ned Lowenscroft, portrayed with panache and expert timing by David H. Ferguson, fence and parry throughout the night as they spar over loves found and lost, sexuality, personal betrayal, and the role-playing of queens and actors. None are safe from the barbs of Elizabeth and Ned, including the Bard, as Willick's Shakespeare circles the action playing part narrator and part observer to this unfolding drama.

This show's cast is first-rate throughout, and the production is backed by Dana Moran Williams' tremendous barn set and expert lighting by Luke Moyer, which helps set the somber mood.

Presented by Open at the Top at the NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. May 19-Jun. 25. (818) 508-7101, ext. 5.

Reviewed by Jim Crogan

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