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Two Lives of Edward II

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Edward II

Journeymen

at Holy Covenant United Methodist Church

Edward II

Red Hen Productions

at the Chopin Theatre

By Albert Williams

A self-indulgent head of state struggles to retain his position while his political opponents demand his resignation, calling him unfit to govern because of his inappropriate sexual relationship with a younger subordinate and masking their partisan power play with patriotic posturing. Bill Clinton versus congressional Republicans? Try 14th-century England's King Edward II and his ill-fated struggle with his parliament--specifically a faction of barons determined to oust the monarch from his throne.

As recounted in Christopher Marlowe's history play Edward II, the cause of the conflict was Edward's attachment to one Piers de Gaveston, a "base and obscure" young man he installed as his court favorite and principal "minion," to use the play's repeated slur (an English bastardization of the French pet name mignon). Enraged by Edward's preferential treatment of the lowborn lad--and seeing an opportunity to undermine the king by making an issue of the controversial relationship--the renegade Mortimer and his lover, Edward's estranged wife Isabella, fomented civil war, bringing about the murder first of Gaveston and eventually of Edward himself. The king was slain in a grisly manner thought to be fit punishment for his illicit and deviant affair: anal rape with a red-hot poker.

Edward II was first performed in or about 1592, just one year before Marlowe--an open homosexual, outspoken atheist, and sometime spy for Queen Elizabeth--was killed at age 29 in a tavern brawl. (The fight supposedly began as a disagreement over the bar bill, though historians have also suggested political assassination and a lovers' quarrel.) The play is rarely done nowadays; Chicago audiences may know it from Derek Jarman's 1991 movie version, from a stunning British production starring Ian McKellen shown on PBS almost 30 years ago, or from Bertolt Brecht's reworking of the Marlowe script, presented by the Absolute Theatre Company in 1986. Though considered by some scholars to be the playwright's most complex and mature work, Edward II is unlikely to appeal to theatergoers who pat themselves on the back for sitting through Shakespeare. The Bard's lofty rhetoric, lyrical poetry, and playful juggling of tragic and comic elements are absent from Marlowe's bleak meditation on sex and politics--and then there's that hideous ending.

Yet Edward II recently opened in not one but two productions. These ambitious, proficient offerings come from adventurous, itinerant nonprofit off-Loop ensembles: the Journeymen (best known for their brilliant low-budget Angels in America last summer) and Red Hen Productions (a new adjunct to the commercial LeTraunik Productions operation). The shows were in fact scheduled to open on the same night until technical problems forced the Journeymen to move their opening back a few days. It remains to be seen whether the troupes cut into or bolster each other's audience, but the competition provides a remarkable display of young talent dedicated to bold, uncompromising, risky work. The companies' artistic leaders haven't merely provided different stagings of the same script--they've created their own distinctive adaptations by cutting, reorganizing, sometimes even radically reshaping the original text. The language is Marlowe's, and the story is the same one he pulled from Holinshed's Chronicles (also the source for many of Shakespeare's plays); but the contrasting flavors of the two shows shed light on a neglected classic in sometimes fascinating ways.

Red Hen director Mark-John McSheehy sees the play as a tragedy of obsession; that view, along with the need to fill the Chopin Theatre's sprawling main stage, results in a declamatory, occasionally overstated performance that alternates between being forceful and feeling forced. The Journeymen's more effective version, set in a church sanctuary and directed by Frank Pullen, treats the work more as a love story, conveyed in a series of atmospheric, visually and dynamically varied vignettes.

Distilling 20 years of turmoil into approximately two and a half hours of narrative, Edward II recounts the conflict that stems from its hero's accession to the English throne in 1307, following the death of his father, Edward I. A somewhat reluctant king indifferent to the duties of state, Marlowe's Edward is preoccupied with reestablishing his affair with Gaveston, exiled by Edward I at the behest of church authorities (the play reeks of Marlowe's contempt for the clergy). Gaveston joins Edward's court to the chagrin of Queen Isabella, who begins conspiring with the wily Mortimer. After a series of political maneuvers--Gaveston's murder rouses the passive Edward to military action, Isabella flees to her native France, and Edward takes refuge in a monastery with his new companion, Spencer--the king is deposed, imprisoned in a sewage cistern, and finally slain, leaving his adolescent son to become Edward III. Isabella and Mortimer try to make the boy a puppet king, but like so many of the schemes in this stark drama, their plan backfires; the play ends as it began, with a willful young man claiming the crown of his dead father.

For all its complex plot machinations, Edward II focuses less on action than on the clash of personalities, as Edward, Gaveston, Mortimer, and Isabella pursue their desires. Edward wants Gaveston, and refuses to relinquish him no matter what turmoil the nation is in; Gaveston wants Edward, and also the prestige and position the king's approval brings; Isabella wants Edward, and when she can't have him she aims to ruin him; Mortimer wants Edward's power, and temporarily acquires it by controlling Isabella. "There is a point, to which when men aspire, / They tumble headlong down; that point I touch'd, / And seeing there was no place to mount up higher, / Why should I grieve at my declining fall?" Mortimer is speaking, but the lesson applies to the others too. Edward's moment of self-realization is even more simply stated: "Death ends all," he says, shortly before his assassin, Lightborn (the name is an anglicization of Lucifer), comes to end his misery.

Appropriately, both Red Hen and the Journeymen focus on human drama, seeking it alternately in intimate interactions between two or three people and in churchly and courtly ceremonies staged to further the characters' aspirations. The Journeymen's visually imaginative production is particularly strong in this regard: director Pullen contrasts the characters' verbal duels with long passages of pageantry, ranging from the candlelit funeral procession that opens the evening (Edward takes the crown from his father's bier and places it on his own head) to the sardonic ceremony signaling Gaveston's downfall (the barons silently kneel when Edward walks past them toward his throne, then pointedly rise as the exiled Gaveston walks by in the other direction). These and other ceremonial episodes--which benefit from Alex Ferrill and Jonathan Watkins's live music, ranging from Gregorian chants to martial trumpet calls to evocative flute and chime melodies to a bouncy folk-rock setting of Marlowe's poem "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love"--do not add pomp for its own sake but create an experience to be shared by viewers and performers. Pullen places the audience on either side of a long, rectangular playing area; since the audience's chairs are at floor level, some of the action is hard to see unless you're in the front row. But mitigating the problematic sight lines is a marvelous intimacy, which also compensates for the terrible acoustics (exacerbated by the periodic rumbling of the el).

Red Hen's production is bigger and more visually static. The main design element of Geoffrey M. Curley's set is a plank affixed to a turntable; at one end of the plank is Edward's throne, where he sits at the play's start, and at the other a penitential rail, where he kneels as he awaits his death. Director McSheehy--who adapted the play with Red Hen's artistic director, Elayne LeTraunik--punctuates many scene changes and signals the characters' important decisions by having actors rotate the turntable, a device that's arresting at first but becomes clunky and intrusive as the story gains momentum. Both productions revel in stage combat; the Red Hen version features a rousing group battle scene, choreographed by Brian LeTraunik, that brings the first act to a cliff-hanger climax, while the Journeymen include several smaller sword fights (one or two too many, in fact), staged by Chad Suitts and Mark Habert.

The most significant differences lie in the companies' interpretations of the central roles. The Journeymen's Edward, Nathan Vogt, is a gentle, fair-haired choirboy type whose thoughtful soliloquies seem the expressions of a man working through his problems out loud; epicene but not effeminate, he makes clear Edward's alienation from the macho thugs in his parliament. Red Hen's Lawrence MacGowan is wholly different, a petulant, paranoid hothead driven by an erratic energy, whether clumsily frolicking with Gaveston or erupting in truly awesome rage upon hearing of his lover's death. Vogt is by far the more appealing Edward, and his romance with Michael Winsead's insolent yet charming Gaveston is both credible and endearing. Yet MacGowan conveys a deeper sense of the character's transformation in his final scenes: death comes to him as an almost eerily erotic deliverance, while the way Vogt is manhandled at the end robs his Edward of tragic self-understanding. Unfortunately, MacGowan fails to establish a believable relationship with Matt Yde's blustery Gaveston, robbing Red Hen's production of a core connection; the show doesn't really take off until the end of the first act, once Gaveston is dead.

Mortimer and Isabella are also given sharply different portrayals in the two productions. Red Hen's Melissa Carlson effectively evolves from weepy wronged wife to haughty power broker, while the Journeymen's Dana Trecker starts out as an ice queen and develops into a monster, literally vampirizing one of her victims. Adapter-director Pullen also gives Isabella the task of hiring the king's killer in the Journeymen production, while Red Hen follows Marlowe's original by assigning the job to Mortimer. Under McSheehy's direction, Christian Kohn plays Mortimer as a suave, soft-spoken slickster, while the Journeymen's Ammar Daraiseh makes the character a burly buccaneer whose raunchy virility offers Isabella a clear alternative to the aloof Edward. The supporting actors--Red Hen's cast numbers 16, the Journeymen's 20 (clad in clever combinations of medieval and modern dress)--for the most part offer technically solid deliveries. Of special interest is the Journeymen's casting of youthful David Shaeffer as the boy-king Edward III in contrast to Red Hen's assignment of the role to a woman, Deborah Monson (she doubles as Lady Margaret, a small role eliminated in the Journeymen's adaptation).

Audiences familiar with the original text will be intrigued by how the two directors chose to frame some famous passages. In the Journeymen version, Gaveston delivers his first-scene soliloquy--"I must have wanton poets, pleasant wits [to] draw the pliant king which way I please"--as a boast to his sidekick (and successor) Spencer, while in Red Hen's staging the scene becomes a sensual duet between Edward and Gaveston, showing the king coming under his courtier's spell (it would be more effective, however, if the pair came off as lovers rather than pals). A speech by Mortimer's uncle defending Edward by comparing him to other famous homosexuals--"The mightiest kings have had their minions"--is sadly truncated in Red Hen's rendition but left intact (though reassigned to Edward's brother) by the Journeymen.

On a purely consumer level, the Journeymen's Edward II has the edge: everything else aside, it's cheaper--$12 a ticket as opposed to Red Hen's top price of $25. (Red Hen is operating under an Actors' Equity contract calling for one union actor, MacGowan, as well as a union stage manager, but the quality of the non-Equity Journeymen production is just as strong.) But both these productions merit attention for their strong choices: I found much to admire as well as criticize in both, but there's no disputing the commitment, individuality, and talent that make this twin-spin one of the new year's signal theater events.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Edward II" (Red Hen Productions) theater still by Larry Lapidus; "Edward II" (Journeymen) theater still by Michael Broslilow.

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