Arriving in the cool, quiet City Lit theatre space Thursday night for Otherworld Theatre Company‘s newest production, I am immediately transported to a time and a place not my own. The intimate but flexible stage is lit in blues and greens, with ivy crawling the walls of a crumbling castle ruin, and through the high-above birdsong and rustling of trees, a guitar is lazily picked at and plucked from the corner of the space. All is hushed and calm, and even the creaky seats of the audience can’t bother me now. I’m already focusing on the Isle of Annwyn and the tale that lies ahead.
Adorably, the minstrel casually puttering with the guitar rises and takes center stage to sing the curtain speech, encouraging the audience to refrain from flash photos, but to share their experience with the show online and tell their friends if they enjoy it. She smiles, then grows somber and transitions us into the story and floats away into the shadows again.
The story of Charles Busch’s play “Queen Amarantha” is straightforward to any reader of fantasy or contemporary viewer of HBO’s Game of Thrones. A brutal tyrant king dies, leaving the kingdom to his daughter Amarantha (Moira Begale). As she adjusts to being Queen, she struggles with the pomp and circumstance, but loves walking among her people in disguise and befriending the lower classes. Her advisors, including the Earl of Moreland (David Servillo) and the Duke of Agar (Elliott Sowards), are unhappy with this – they take advantage of her misdirection by lifting some gold from the treasury. Amarantha’s childhood friend, the Countess Thalia (Mary-Kate Arnold, who begins as a charming, effervescent ember and by the end of the play has erupted and dissolved into molten rage and insanity), was exiled by Amarantha’s father, but now returns home again. She assures Amarantha their friendship and love will always be as it was, but there is definitely trouble afoot. A carefully orchestrated scandal sends the queen away, abdicating her throne to her young cousin and ward, Roderigo (Dylan Schaefer). Overjoyed, Amarantha believes she can finally be free to live how she likes – men’s clothes and all – but doesn’t realize that her actions have plunged Roderigo into the lion’s den, and her country into disarray. She must choose whether to return and fight for the throne, or stay hidden and let it all fall to pieces in her enemies’ hands.
There are obvious parallels between the playwright’s Amarantha and history’s Elizabeth I; she is subjected to much scrutiny for being a female ruler, the common people love her (she believes), her advisors push to have her marry a foreign prince for alliances, and she is humiliated to be ‘examined’ by a surgeon to determine her breeding capabilities. But there are also significant differences: Amarantha would rather don rough trousers and ‘frightening’ boots and work the fields with a farmer than sit in council bejeweled and gowned. When she is faced with scandal and humiliation, she flees to the comforting arms of anonymity and exile rather than face her people’s scorn.
For a play which plunges its audience into the political intrigue we so crave thanks to our addiction with Game of Thrones and other hearty period-based dramas, Busch’s script surprises with a heartfelt exploration of sexual fluidity. Amarantha is openly affectionate with her maid, Edra (played with a strong, quiet earthiness by Grace Gimpel) but also falls for a handsome commoner, Adrian (the sly, deliciously dashing Brendan Stallings) with not a whiff of explanation of why or how, or what label she falls under. It’s also implied there were past encounters between Thalia and Amarantha as well, and yet Thalia continues to play the men around her like so many musical instruments. The characters in the play simply are what they are, which is wonderful to see onstage without debate or qualification. The sexual moments are handled personably and simply, but never cheaply.
There are moments of “Queen Amarantha” that flutter closer to melodrama, but there are also moments of quality that approach an almost Shakespearean feel. Sowards as Agar is truly living and breathing with the gravitas of this world, and Servillo is right beside him there, even giving Moreland a hand-rubbing tic that is consistent throughout the play. Begale as the title role has a sweet, genuine air about her, but seems uncertain whether to truly command the space as a monarch. Arnold’s roller coaster turn as Thalia has flashes of Cersei Lannister, Margaery Tyrell, and Melisandre (all from Game of Thrones). Fight choreography by Otherworld ensemble member Kai Young utilizes the space extremely well (especially in the second act) although the melee has moments of hesitation from all parties involved. The costumes are suitably semi-medieval and were lusher than I expected, and the lights and sound are wonderful, though occasionally the sound is too loud over genuine, epic dialogue.
Director Tiffany Keane‘s work with her cast and Busch’s source material is solid and encouraging; I can only hope that Otherworld continues to bring more high fantasy to the stage.
Otherworld Theatre Company presents “Queen Amarantha” by Charles Busch
at City Lit Theatre (1020 W. Bryn Mawr) in Chicago until June 28th.
Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays 7:30pm – Sundays 4:00pm