ASP’s ‘Edward II’: A page-turner of a production
CHARLESTOWN – When Actors Shakespeare Project in the recent past has dipped outside the canon of The Bard, the results have been very, very good.
A production of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” at Pine Manor College in Newton comes to mind. So does a scandalously funny production of “The School for Scandal” in Cambridge last winter.
Now comes Christopher Marlowe’s “Edward II” at the Charlestown Working Theater, the story of the dear price a 14th Century English monarch paid to be with his gay lover, and the fallout that would reverberate in the wake of his death.
Marlowe, of course, was a frequent collaborator with Shakespeare and on course to be the greatest literary figure of his time when he was killed in a barroom brawl at the age of 29.
Although popular on stage for years after its debut in the late 16th Century, “Edward II” – with its homoerotic theme — essentially was a victim of the culture wars, disappearing from view for almost 300 years from the mid-17th Century until the mid-20th Century.
Director David R. Gammons has chosen to center his take on the piece on the relationship between Edward II (Maurice Emmanuel Parent) and his male lover, Piers Gaveston (Eddie Shields), a Frenchman and a lesser-born commoner.
This adaptation cuts the number of characters by two-thirds, eliminates some of the political mayhem and distills the number of unhappy noblemen to two: Lancaster (Nigel Gore) and Mortimer (Alex Pollock).
While the passion of Edward and Gaveston provides the dramatic impetus, this is a play that eventually becomes a contest of wills between two people: Edward and Mortimer.
Pollock, who has made his name playing offbeat characters in works such as “The Aliens” and “This is Our Youth,” has a shaved head and is clad in black leather, speaks softly and thoughtfully, each word oozing menace. He is someone to watch, whether right in the middle of the action, lurking above or just offstage, and even when he is imperiled – including a harrowing torture scene – he seems somehow to be in control, biding his time until as an opportunist he can make his play. Shields as Gaveston opens the play sitting in a bath in the nude, luxuriating in his place in the court and his love for Edward. He stretches and preens.
Edward has recalled Gaveston from exile in France as the play opens , with Mortimer and Lancaster warning the monarch that they swore to his father they would keep Gaveston from returning, and would take up arms if need be.
Edward proceeds to confer on his low-born lover him a royal title, a position of influence and money. Mortimer and others see these as undeserved honors and rewards going to “flatterers” such as Gaveston and they vow to see him exiled.
Edward is married to Queen Isabella (Jennie Israel), daughter of the e King of France, and has a son, Prince Edward III (David J. Castillo). But Edward makes it quite clear that his queen is out of his bed – and Gaveston has taken her place.
Still, the spurned queen urges Mortimer and Lancaster not to take action against the king.
But the angry lords issue an order of banishment for Gaveston that Edward must agree to on threat of being deposed.
But Mortimer later has a change of heart, allowing Gaveston to return to the kingdom so it may be easier to eliminate him altogether, a Godfather-style philosophy: “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
The blood starts getting shed soon afterwards.
There are nice supporting turns by Stewart Evan Smith as Spencer, who allies with Edward and pays a dear price himself. Nile Hawver is Kent, the King’s brother, who is alternately with Edward and against him.
Castillo’s 14-year-old Edward II is clearly a Not Ready For Prime Time King when he takes the throne, easily manipulated by his mother and Mortimer, who have long since joined forces against Edward.
Parent’s Edward is a brooder, from the first moments we see him seated above the stage on his throne. He is constantly debating with himself over his role as monarch, even as his passion for Gaveston threatens his throne.
But as those closest to him turn against him – even his wife – and after the loss of his lover, his early thirst for revenge slowly gives way to despair as he draws within himself, especiallyin the second act when he curls up in a tub and gives up his crown before he forfeits his life.
In program notes, director Gammons said that the set design by Sara Brown – a two-tier metal set with staging and scaffolding, water fixtures, dirty floor tiles, stairs and a ladder that leads upward, was based at least in part on the gay bathhouses of 1980s New York and San Francisco.
A fog machine and some ethereal lighting by Jeff Adelberg adds to the atmosphere, oft placid until violence – as it often does – changes the mood abruptly.
Sound designer David Wilson sampled and borrowed from many sources for the soundscape of the production
At a recent performance the theater was very warm, very possibly out of consideration for the actors, two of whom spend a significant part of the play unclothed. Because of the nudity and strong sexual content, “Edward II” is not recommended for patrons under the age of 18 without adult approval.
Director Gammons came to this project fresh off the recent hit comedy “Hand to God” at Speakeasy Stage Company.
He has fashioned an exciting, sensual, suspenseful rendition of Marlowe’s work, a page-turner of a production with more than enough intrigue and betrayal to go around.
The Actors Shakespeare Project production of Christopher Marlowe’s “Edward II.” Directed by David R. Gammons. At The Charlestown Working Theater through March 19. Actorsshakespeareproject.org.