If you haven’t visited the Vortex theater in East Austin, you’re missing out on community theater at its best. Come early and grab a drink and a snack at the Butterfly Bar, which occupies the same building. Watch a movie on the wall by the bar (you may see Popeye episodes), or step outside to the lighted patio for a game of chess.
Pick up your “ticket” at the box office – a suited selection from a deck of cards – and enter the theater when your suit is called. Don’t worry about finishing your drink before the show; you can take it in. Grab any open seat you like.
The down to earth atmosphere at the Vortex is inviting, but don’t let the low-key description lead you astray. Theater performances at the Vortex are taken seriously.
Now at the Vortex: Elizabeth I
This past weekend, Elizabeth: Heart of a King opened to a full house at the Vortex. Written by Lorella Loftus and running through January 26, 2013, Elizabeth portrays a strong, historical figure like you’ve never seen her before.
Before I get too far, a disclaimer. I’ve done no serious research on the life of Elizabeth I. Perhaps I’m not alone when I admit that I usually associate a limited number of adjectives with historical figures, based on college textbooks and media portrayals.
In this case, my knowledge of Elizabeth I and her world is largely limited to Cate Blanchett’s portrayal and Showtime’s television series, The Tudors. If you were to ask, I would describe her as “strong,” and make some mention of her reputation as the Virgin Queen.
Fortunately for everyone, Elizabeth playwright Lorella Loftus is a true student of history. Her screenplay demonstrates a depth of knowledge and grasp of historical fact. But let’s not forget that this is theater, and theater is about entertainment. To that end, Loftus takes liberty with the historical record, filling in the gaps with fascinating speculation that demonstrates the humanity of a woman who can seem super-human.
The three-act play features three actresses as Elizabeth I. Angela Loftus plays the young Lady Elizabeth; Lorella Loftus plays Elizabeth Regina in her middle years, and Jennifer Underwood plays the aged queen at the end of her life. Each woman does a tremendous job, dominating the stage during her time there.
The Elizabeths are supported by a small cast. Each cast member has the difficult job of playing multiple characters throughout the three-hour performance. Their characters are distinguished by simple, memorable props or costume pieces, accents, and mannerisms.
Watching the transformations is enjoyable, and I jotted down praise for each actor in my notes. (I can’t resist a special mention for Xander Slay-Tamkin as the Duke of Anjou, who does an impressive job of “dancing” like a frog.)
Taken together, Elizabeth: Heart of a King displays an Elizabeth I who is not always so strong. Influenced by the emotional detachment of her father, the beheading of her mother, and broken relationships in between, the private Elizabeth is sometimes vulnerable, insecure and overly reliant on others. Loftus’ Elizabeth isn’t quite so chaste – not quite as much of a virgin as popularly thought. Though she is powerful and level-headed in public, and has a passionate love for her country and her people, she can be weaker and wilder when meeting calamity in her personal life.
For my part, I believe this portrayal must be at least part-ways true. No person can experience the heartbreak, loss and pressure that Elizabeth I did, and escape unscathed. The inspiring take-away is that our lives may not be so different from our historical heroes. History can be overly kind to the rich and powerful: highlighting their successes and over-simplifying their journey with overused adjectives. In reality, no one escapes the challenges. What matters is whether we, like Elizabeth I, manage to rise above them to live a life worth remembering.
Visit the Vortex theater’s website for ticket information and showtimes. You’ll be glad you did.
What theater performances have you seen in Austin? What is your favorite venue?