Edward the Second
nytheatre.com review by Ivanna Cullinan
December 16, 2007
But what are kings, when regiment is gone,
But perfect shadows in a sunshine day?
- Edward II, 5:1:26-7
As adapted by the late Garland Wright and produced by Red Bull Theater, Edward the Second is a play sharply focused on bias and power with every detail intensely designed. The production is skillful, brisk, rife with imagery, and abundantly, if at times a bit relentlessly, clear on its intent to show Edward as an example of "the inevitably destructive and combustive mix of love and politics." It is very clearly told (no easy feat) and, overall, strongly acted. This Edward the Second is a worthwhile production of quality, playing to the strengths of Marlowe's text, but can, with its emphatic tone and choices, become a thing simply to be admired while not necessarily felt. Yet there is much to be admired.
When Edward comes to the throne, he extravagantly elevates his lover Gaveston (strongly played by Kenajuan Bentley) to high offices and royally pisses off his nobles. Things rapidly proceed to go to hell in a handbag but what a very pretty handbag as it were, with the lavish costumes by Clint Ramos serving to further drive the character-types home. Gaveston, a sort of courtesan who's made bank, is dressed in back room leather gear...when he wears clothes. There is a fair amount of "bad behavior wears leather" going on here. As Queen Isabel becomes further alienated from the king and begins to maneuver ways of staying close to power, she shows up in gorgeous power boots—somewhat impeding her ability to navigate the many levels of John Arnone's set. There is also a created scenario in which Isabel enters Edward's bed chamber and is surprised there by Gaveston. Although a striking picture is created by the train of her robe trailing across the stage and ultimately flicking Gaveston, the image has more importance than the actual scene. Frequently it feels as if it is the shape of things that is primary in this production.
Within the world of this adaptation it is quickly established that there are two major camps, straight (the court) and gay (the king and his favorites). To clarify who is on which side, as well as to strengthen otherwise minor roles, characters are combined and for the most part these combinations work well. The king's side is particularly well served in the casting of those characters. A favorite of the king, Spencer benefits greatly and if some nuance is lost when the nobles reject his offer to serve as pledge for Gaveston (the lines belong to Arundel, a rare loyal noble), the effective performance by Randy Harrison more than makes up for it. He has an especially moving speech (I believe not from Marlowe's text) to the king, which is a sort of St. Joan-to-the-Dauphin moment, inciting a listless, grieving Edward to defend "those of our kind." Marc Vietor's Edward is true to the flaws and strengths of a character all too often reduced to being unsympathetic and irritating. When lamenting that his queen has deserted him for Mortimer, Edward's utter lack of the ironic manages to be truly amusing as Vietor establishes that Edward, while limited as a king, is fully and finitely human. On the opposing side, the nobles are especially well served by Mortimer (a deceptively dangerous military type, played by Matthew Rauch) and a truly conflicted brother to the King, Kent (Lucas Hall).
But as the production requires this solid character work as extreme commitment to taking sides, it doesn't leave many folks on stage to care about. They all seem ready, willing and able to kill; no accommodations possible. It feels less that love and more that sheer pig-headedness is destructive. Once they've all been done away with, the picture at the end is an 11-year-old boy (Edward III, played with sincerity by Raum-Aron) onstage with his machine gun. He is distantly flanked by anonymous guards and the corpses of Mortimer and his mother hanging artfully in the back ground. It goes from unrelenting battling to an emptiness that is framed but still empty.
This is a fine show, there is a lot of strongly articulated work but the over-importance of design and concept stifle the play itself as the event. There is so much impulse/image/thought here that I wish that Red Bull were producing more often and more simply, so that the many varied and arresting ideas of director Jesse Berger had room to breathe. Still Edward the Second is something to watch and it is always clear where the characters stand.