Theater Review: ASP’s “Edward II” — The Intimacy of Political Violence

Marlowe’s skill in maintaining a high level of complexity put the history play on a sophisticated footing that challenged his competitors, including Shakespeare.

Edward II by Christopher Marlowe. Directed by David R. Gammons. Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project at Charlestown Working Theater, Charlestown, MA, through March 19.

Photo: Maggie Hall

Edward II (Maurice Emmanuel Parent) and Queen Isabelle (Jennie Isreal) in the ASP production of “Edward II.” Photo: Maggie Hall.

By Ian Thal

Piers Gaveston (Eddie Shields), favorite to the crown prince of England, is curled up in a metal bathtub, awakened by an answering machine message: the prince has now been crowned King Edward II (Maurice Emmanuel Parent). He is ending the decree of exile that his father had imposed upon Gaveston to punish his son’s extravagance. Edward has invited him back to rule by his side.

Edward II was groundbreaking when it premiered in the early 1590s. Its numerous innovations include being among the first English history plays and the first to deal frankly with the issue of homoeroticism. For dramatic purposes, Marlowe compresses twenty-three years of events, and his skill in maintaining a high level of complexity put the genre on a sophisticated footing that challenged his competitors, including Shakespeare. It seems strange that this superb play has been performed so infrequently over the last two decades, given the struggle to overturn “don’t ask, don’t tell,” to advance marriage equality, and efforts to defend the human rights of LGBT people internationally.

Historians are divided over whether Edward and Gaveston had a sexual relationship or, if they did, whether defining them as gay is an anachronism. Both men were married, and had children with their wives along with offspring by other women as well. However, their unshakable dedication to one another is an unquestioned fact. Chronicles record that their political enemies called them “sodomites” (a charge also leveled against the Knights Templar at the same time).

Wherever you stand on the question, Marlowe was writing about two men in love and, once reunited, that is what this exquisitely punky production focuses on. Director David R. Gammons is nothing if not inventive; it is a joy whenever he is given a linguistically and thematically challenging script to deal with, one that allows him to dig deep into its imagery and come up with performance idioms that stretch the range of the production’s actors.

Parent’s Edward is a passionate king: passionate for love and war, but not for cultivating the subtler machinations of  statecraft that might have assisted him in keeping his crown, his queen, and his Gaveston. Jennie Israel’s Isabella is a queen who loves her husband and is tender to their son; she might have been genially amenable to Gaveston’s presence if Edward’s love were not a zero-sum game. Israel’s performance captures the figure’s sincere heartbreak as well as her self-conscious application of realpolitik. Nigel Gore’s Lancaster is a cagey political player who is not able to control his destructive instincts; a leader of the rebel barons, he is belligerent even after he wins a satisfying victory.

David J. Castillo, as Edward III, spends most of the play silently witnessing the vicious power-plays ripping his family apart. But he supplies a compelling performance when he is called on to take a more central role in the fifth act: he is a figure of historical distinction, a boy who became king at the age of thirteen and at sixteen staged a coup against his “protectors” to exact revenge on those who murdered his father.

Alex Pollock, as Mortimer (a composite character in this production — both Marlowe and Holinshed’s Chronicles proffer older and younger Mortimers), gives a brilliantly strange performance, a striking study in affected solipsism. His head shaved, usually clad in leather from the neck down, he observes a world from which he is alienated; he deliberately chooses his every gesture, his every syllable, his every Latin aphorism, to intimate menace. Other strong supporting performances include Nile Hawver as Edward’s half-brother, the Earl of Kent, a man of divided loyalties, and Stewart Evan Smith as the steady Spencer (also a composite of old and young Spencers).

Omar Robinson makes an auspicious debut as a Violence Designer. The choice of a Bowie knife (perhaps a pun on the gender-bending, non-conforming rock star who died last year?) as mayhem’s primary weapon is memorable: too large to have any purpose but carving flesh, its short blade guarantees it will be of intimate service. Robinson also supplies an inventive torture scene as well as allusions to dramatist Marlowe’s own (real life) death in a pub brawl.

But violence isn’t the only type of choreography on display here. When Edward and Gaveston are reunited after exile, there is an extended sequence of improv-inspired dance moves (presumingly devised by Parent and Shields — no choreographer is credited) to the accompaniment of David Lang’s “Just (After Song of Songs).” The strategy dramatizes intimacy without falling back on the campy clichés often seen in portraying homoeroticism on stage. Castillo also makes effective use of movement — via a sequence of undulations and cantilevered stances – to dramatize how the thirteen-year old Edward III responds to the bullying of his “protectors.”

Photo: Maggie Hall

Edward II (Maurice Emmanuel Parent) and Gaveston (Eddie Shields) in the ASP production of “Edward II.” Photo: Maggie Hall.

Gammons always assembles a strong team to take care of the visual and sound aspects of the plays he takes on. Set designer Sara Brown has transformed the stage into an old gymnasium that features a changing room or lavatory (as a pun on “throne” – a toilet is visible in the wings). The gritty mortar between the white tiles gives the setting an appropriate air of dinginess, while the scaffolding and clear plastic curtains suggest that this is a gym (and a kingdom) undergoing renovation,

Rachel Padula-Shufelt’s costumes track a story arc over the course of five acts: the ornate lamé jackets and other finery of the early scenes disappear after the customary politicking of the court gives way to plotting and violence. The men, even the young prince in his early innocence, usually wear some black leather – especially in the case of Mortimer – whether in the form of boots or pants, or a bondage harness. The material is symbolic of the court’s dominate (and dominating) hyper-masculine culture. The males are only stripped of their leather during moments of love-making or vulnerability to their enemies.

Virtuoso lighting designer Jeff Adelberg makes use of a wide assortment of lighting elements: harsh fluorescent tubes, warm filament bulbs, and hand held lanterns. The result is a nimble chiaroscuro that highlights sudden shifts in mood, eruptions of violence, and sensual physical caresses. A broken shard of mirror in Spenser’s final scene is as much an impressive technical feat as it is a means for a shocking dramatic moment.

David Wilson creates a soundscape of mostly 1980s British post-punk and new wave; the vocal distortions of voice mail and PA systems adds a necessary jagged sonic component to the raggedy tableau.

Marlowe’s Edward II is a historically important play, and ASP’s production is a valuable reminder that the text is as powerful (and as relevant) as any of Shakespeare’s best contributions to the history genre.

Ian Thal is a playwright, performer, and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report

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