nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 9, 2005
Creative Mechanics Theatre Company's revival marks my second time seeing Bertolt Brecht's Edward II. And I just have to say that I don't get this play at all. I don't think it's that sturdy a script.
The play begins with the coronation of young Edward II as King of England, following the death of his popular father. For his crowning, Edward has sent for his banished "favorite" Danyell Gaveston, who in this production in particular is presented very unambiguously as his boyfriend and lover. The nobles are scandalized by the gay King flaunting his homosexuality and the Queen (Anne, sister to the King of France) is embarrassed. Led by an ambitious earl, Roger Mortimer, they demand that Edward renounce Gaveston. When the King refuses, a civil war is sparked that ruins the country. Gaveston is captured and killed; Edward plots revenge but eventually lacks the wherewithal to carry it out and is finally betrayed and then killed himself (thanks to Mortimer's ingeniously unpunctuated letter to his guard: "Kill Edward you must not fear it").
Who is the protagonist of this play? The first act, especially in this staging by Gabriel Shanks, feels pitched toward Edward and Gaveston, particularly the latter, who, as portrayed by the fairly charismatic Noshir Dalal, arouses our sympathy for being turned into a political pawn by his headstrong lover and their intolerant enemies.
Making the play about the unjust effects of homophobia feels good, but it's not supported by the second act, which turns sharply against Edward, showing him to be weak, petty, tyrannical, arbitrary, and capable of real cruelty. Our admiration, if not our empathy, seems to be intended for smart, crafty Mortimer; our compassion, when aroused here, is only for the neglected crown prince (who will be Edward III by play's end) and the occasional common man whose path unfortunately crosses with these bloodthirsty nobles. In these moments, we see the Brecht of later plays (he wrote Edward II very early in his career) who wants to use drama to cure the world's economic ills. The rest of the time, what I see is mostly turgid melodrama amongst a passel of unattractive, powerful people who spend all their time and energy pursuing the most indulgent of ends. Not a pretty picture, nor a particularly interesting one.
Brecht set his play in its correct historical period, 1307 - 1326. Shanks's production is set in "the near future," though not at all convincingly: the most jarring, though not the only, anachronism is that the kings and noblemen in this play actually head off to battle themselves, like the warlords they are—imagine American presidents or congressmen doing such a thing nowadays (or in the near future)! Shanks's choice also means that he's excised Brecht's scene titles, which provide useful information about how much time has passed (13 years in one of them); I had very little sense of this watching the show, and it would have been helpful.
The play is also poorly served by the costume designer, Shannon Maddox, who has tried to bridge centuries with attention-getting clothes whose style might be called Retro Medieval Chic. The Queen wanders around for most of the play in a very contemporary slip, worn off the shoulder a la Jennifer Beals in Flashdance. The Archbishops of Winchester wear what looks like half of a formal robe over tights, its flared shoulders and cinched waist making it look more like something Joan Crawford would have worn than churchly garb. Gaveston is in Brando-esque leather. Mortimer (so distractingly!) is in bow tie and pullover sweaters that make him look almost exactly like Bill Moyers. (I never understood what the production's concept of Mortimer's occupation was supposed to mean: is he the King's librarian?)
In contrast, Erik C. Bruce's lighting is appropriate throughout and the set by Allen Cutler—fashioned around heavy plastic sheets that hang around the space as backdrops, along with a variety of scary looking hardware—is terrifically evocative. Chris Meade's sound design works well, too, and the original compositions by Meade and Rob Fellman serve the show nicely.
The performances are very much a mixed bag. Willie LeVasseur is a shrill, soft Edward until the very end, when a quiet dignity finally asserts itself. Janice Herndon goes for the sluttish in Queen Anne, which is supported by the writing; but Frank Blocker seems entirely miscast as Mortimer, missing the poetry and the mastery of his several long speeches and supplying instead only a singsong delivery that undercuts the character badly. I applaud Shanks's instinct to hire a genuinely diverse ensemble, but here there is extreme diversity of style as well: Christopher McAllister's very contemporary and plain-spoken guard contrasts severely with Matthew Trumbull's classically-cadenced Abbot of Coventry in their scenes together, for example—they seem to come not just from different socioeconomic strata but from different universes in different centuries.
All in all, this Edward II is an ambitious but not especially successful attempt at an ambitious but not especially successful play. There's vigor and earnestness in Creative Mechanics' approach; I'd certainly be interested in seeing what they could do with a stronger, more focused work.