A CurtainUp Review
Edward the Second
By Elyse Sommer
That said, the mini boom in Marlowe's work and his life (the latter exemplified by David Grimm's Kit Marlowe produced at the Public Theater seven years ago) is not unwarranted. Marlowe's Edward the Second (1591) has attracted most of this attention though it had a long spell of being rarely performed, with its one 8-performance Broadway production notable mainly because Kevin Kline was an understudy for Lancaster and Patti LuPone for Prince Edward. But, as the Red Bull Theater marks its first production in a theater district venue with its spirited and intensely dramatic world premiere of the late Garland Wright's adaptation, another production further downtown has just closed, while yet another version is running in repertory with Marlowe's Tamburlaine at the Shakespeare Theater in DC.
What makes Edward the Second so appealing? For starters it's timely, revolving as it does around an inept leader. For added relevance there's the homosexual subtext. And to intensify the frequent comparisons to Shakespeare's Richard II the anonymously published Edward III has now been officially attributed, at least partially, to Shakespeare (e.g. publication by Cambridge University Press and the Riverside Shakespeare). Most importantly, this is a ripping good fact based story that, lends itself to varied and colorful stagings.
The Red Bull Theater Company production is as juicy as any you're likely to see or have seen. Like last year's highly acclaimed The Revenger's Tragedy (review), it's filled with breath-catching violence. Jesse Berger's operatic staging is this time around replete with Faure's "Requiem" and the "Casta Diva" prelude from Bellini's Norma. Characters are beheaded, shot or done in with hot poker shoved into their innards. So far, so good. The problem is that while Revengers was a mix of giggles and gore, this is serious stuff with little opportunity to offset watching the body count pile up with laughs. What's more, the various displays of cruelty and the overly intense dramatic style tend to upstage the emotional nuances of the story.
The plot is based on the true history of Edward's ascension to the throne, his troubled kingship which alienated the church, his royal peers and his wife Isabella (whose marriage to him had been arranged by her father, King Philip IV of France, to resolve the conflicts between his country and England). Unlike his father, a strong king who knew how to rule and win battles, the play's Edward (Marc Vietor) is gentler and less politically savvy. His first act is to recall Gaveston (Kenajuan Bentley) the lover who was banished as a bad influence. When Edward bestows all sorts of prestigious and profitable titles on this peasant-born outsider it obviously upsets both his royal peers and his Queen (Claire Lautier). The action see-saws between Edward's having the upper hand, and the royal peers retaliating. In short, blood is spilled by each side.
While the success of Revengers encouraged this young company's move closer to the theater district in order to attract larger audiences, Playwrights Horizons' Peter Sharpe Theater is still the sort of small theater that's easy to fill up. It does, however, provide a stage that is wide and deep enough to accommodate the directors often visually stunning dramatic vision.
Wright's forward looking interpretation includes what is probably Marlowe's most famous and lyrical coinage, "Come live with me and be my love" from a poem called "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love." Berger has also added some additional material, most likely a rather unnecessary opening scene that introduces us to the exiled Gaveston in front of a curtain in an alleyway behind a gay bar. The curtain near the stage apron then rises on John Arnone's artfully simple set consisting of a multi-functional central black platform. This is several times transformed into a giant conference table, and the area around it serves not only as seats for the conferees but as a sort of moat.
The key players from The Revengers Tragedy — Claire Lautier, Matthew Rauch and Marc Vietor— here portray Queen Isabella, the duplicitous Mortimer and the doomed King. Rauch fares best, with his Mortimer projecting the right degree of ruthless ambition. Lautier's take on the Queen is actually quite entertaining, a cross between the Wooster Group's Kate Valk and old-time movie diva Joan Crawford — especially when in an amusing Elizabethan version of a spin-controlling broadcast to the masses, costume designer Clint Ramos outfits her with a square shouldered capelet right out of an old Crawford flick. (Ramos's other costumes are mostly of the punk rock concert style seen in many modernized Shakespeare plays).
Kenajuan Bentley's is a muscular, macho Gaveston. Randy Harrison (probably best known to New York audiences from Queer as Folk ) is okay as Spencer, a Gaveston and Edward loyalist, but not as impressive as in some of the leading roles I've seen him take on at the Berkshire Theater Festival.
The promotional copy at the company website describes this as an examination of the issues of personal human rights amidst a powerful public need for political expediency and the right of an individual in absolute public power to a personal life. But this isn't quite how this plays out. Edward's problem was in fact, and remains so in this play, less a case of homophobia than that of a basically weak leader blinded by a sense of entitlement to do as he wished by virtue of the power vested in him. Sure, the powerful royals in his regime frown on his sexual preferences, but what really ruffles their royal feathers is his granting of perks to an outsider and a commoner. They also feel Edward's focus on his private concerns are bad for England, and the country does indeed head into downward spiral with a diminished and ineffective army. Ultimately Edward's stubborn insistence on having things his way and his vengeful actions when they don't, make him as unsympathetic as those who plot his downfall.
The only sympathetic characters are the Queen who, though she hates Gaveston only reluctantly turns from the King to Mortimer, and Edward's brother Kent (Lucas Hall). It's Kent who makes a persuasive case for letting his brother have the personal life he wants by listing all the mighty leaders who "have had their minions ("Great Alexander loved Hephestian/The conquering Hercules for Hylas wept,/And for Patroclus stern Achilles drooped/ " and so on). He persuades all but Mortimer who sticks to his unyielding stand against Gaveston, not because he's a homosexual but because he can't get past his being an upstart. And so, unsurprisingly Gaveston must go and we see Mortimer handing his head to Spencer with this chillingly vindictive update of a phrase famously associated with Helen of Troy: "Is this the face that shook the crown of England?/ We'll send his head by thee: let him bestow/His tears on that, for that is all he gets/Of Gaveston, or else his senseless trunk."
Though it took Edward the Second's successor (Raum-Arom) quite a few years to shortstop Mortimer from being the power behind (if not on) the throne. His doing so as fast as you can say Edward the Third is as close as you can come to a happy ending. This telescoped bit of history is commendable since it makes for a shorter than usual run time.
And what kind of a king was Edward III? Ah, but that's another play, the one now officially credited to Will Shakespeare.
Links to other plays by and about Marlow
Edward II-- London 2003 Brecht's Edward II-Off-Off Broadway 2005
Faustus-London 2006 Doctor Faustus -London 2005
Dido Queen of Carthage-Off Broadway, 2002
Dido, Queen of Carthage- London 2003
David Grimm's Kit Marlowe -2000