Karin Coonrod found Queen Elizabeth I to be such a compelling subject that she needed four actresses, and four thrones, to contain her.
"I totally get her spirit," Coonrod said in a recent, wide-ranging phone interview. "She loved to dance, she loved poetry, Loved horseback riding, she loved language, she loved social repartee, she loved theater and music…"
Coonrod's post-modernist play, with its lower-case, spaceless title "texts&beheadings/ElizabethR," is receiving its New England premiere 8 p.m. Feb. 17 at the Wesleyan Center for the Arts' CFA Theater.
Coonrod says she began the project when Joe Melillo, executive producer of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, gave her carte blanche to create a new piece for BAM's 2016 Next Wave Festival. Coonrod is an internationally known playwright and "theater maker" who teaches at Yale and is as conversant with the works of Shakespeare as she is with the modern avant-garde.
She originally wanted to adapt the Gertrude Stein children's book "The World is Round" but learned that a remarkably similar project was being developed for BAM that year by a different artist. "I was told, 'Do something else you've always wanted to do,'" Coonrod says, "and I've been obsessed with Elizabeth I all my life."
"How could any woman who wants to make an impact on the world not consider Elizabeth I?" the playwright muses. She took the team she'd already assembled for "The World is Round," including composer Gina Leishman, and began to explore. Four distinct Elizabeths revealed themselves, which Coonrod was able to match with four forms of communications that the monarch had mastered: speeches, letters, poems and prayers.
"There are four movements" to "texts&beheadings," Coonrod explains. "Each actress is a queen for one of the genres. It's not in any neat order, and I feel that's correct — I tried not to do it chronologically. I was listening hard to what the piece wanted to be, letting it speak for itself." Her recent immersion into the works of Gertrude Stein helped her decide on a non-linear, disjointed writing style she refers to as "fracturing." "I don't always use fracturing, but in the last three years I have been fracturing a lot."
Some themes announced themselves early on. "I was thinking of Hillary Clinton making a bid for the presidency, of women in power, and how there's a big fear of women that is this great country of ours." Another contemporary issue Coonrod notes: "I wanted to crash through the idolatry. We kind of worship celebrity. We've seen how far that can go, in this last election."
"texts&beheadings" was developed with the New York-based theater collective Compagnia de' Colombari. Coonrod did extensive research at the Folger Shakespeare library in Washington, D.C., and "texts&beheadings/ElizabethR" had its premiere at the library's Folger Theatre in September 2015. It played BAM a month later.
For its current tour, which includes not just Wesleyan but the Taconic Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, N.Y., and New York City's Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, two of the four actresses — Adina Verson (a Yale School of Drama graduate who had a prominent role in the world premiere of Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman's "Indecent" at the Yale Repertory Theatre) and Helga Davis — are new to the project; Cristina Spina and Juliana Francis Kelly return from the original cast.
The performance at Wesleyan, Coonrod says, will be the closest to how "texts&beheadings" looked at BAM. For all the shows, Coonrod has made some changes to the script and staging.
Much of the text comes from the monarch's own writings. "She created a kingdom of words," Coonrod says, arguing that Elizabeth I's love of language inspired writers such as Shakespeare. "Poets were able to breathe inside this kingdom, and thrive."
"texts&beheading/ElizabethR" by Karin Coonrod, performed by Compagnia de' Colombari, gets a single performance 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17, at Wesleyan Center for the Arts, 283 Washington Terrace, Middletown. Tickets are $28 and $26 for students and seniors, with discounts for Wesleyan students and staff. 860-685-3355, wesleyan.edu.