Public Service Announcement: Anyone the slightest bit wary or uncomfortable about gay re-thinkings of classic plays should steer clear of the Bank Street Theatre until Edward II completes its run there on September 25.
This isn't to say that the Creative Mechanicals production of the Bertolt Brecht play, which is directed by Gabriel Shanks, is appropriate viewing for anyone. It's a dyspeptic, dystopian mess likely only bearable - let alone watchable - while overdosing on certain kinds of psychotropic drugs. (Or, for that matter, No Doz, though you might need twice the recommended dosage to survive these two interminable hours.) But the way this Edward II is sexually charged, even wall-to-wall fighting and political scheming can't make it seem more heterosexually oriented than Naked Boys Singing.
To be fair, some degree of this would be acceptable. The sexual orientation of Britain's King Edward II (1284-1327) has long been something of an open question, and Brecht highlights his relationship with his favored Danyell Gaveston in a way that presses more than just the traditional, courtly ideas of brotherly love between men. And while Shanks could probably have communicated these ideas more creatively than by having the two performers engage in lengthy, open-mouthed make-out sessions, it's at least a justifiable choice.
But the gay undertones simmering beneath every aspect of the production - from the abandoned warehouse set (Allen Cutler incorporates meat hooks, rusty chains, and translucent plastic sheets in his designs) and contemporary Chelsea garb (Shannon Maddox's costumes utilize more black and leather than one imagines was the 14th-century norm) - are otherwise considerably less convincing. The clergy is apparently composed exclusively of gay men. Edward's most vicious adversary, Mortimer, is barely closeted; he ends up with Edward's wife, Anne, despite showing no discernible interest in her; this leads to an onstage sexual encounter between the two that's by turns pitiable, laughable, and stomach-turning. A brutal murder is staged as a perverse bondage fantasy that proves more bewildering than disgusting.
I must admit, I have no idea what Shanks was aiming for with all of this. His focus on a world in which the distribution of sexual orientation is reversed from our reality doesn't instantly cohere with the story of a confused, embittered king who spends years involving his country in wars that no one really understands. The sex dealings, implicit and explicit, detract from the telling of that story; not a one is titillating, and there's practically no bare flesh to be found, but they all feel like diversionary techniques instead of an organic outgrowth of Brecht's writing. That rethinking this radical never casts the play in an appreciably different or energizing light suggests that something is amiss at the conceptual level.
Shanks deserves some credit for resisting the temptation to directly point up parallels he might detect between the stories of Edward II and President Bush; however incomprehensible Shanks's other choices, he doesn't take the easy way out in that regard. But there's precious little else to praise here - the only actor worthy of note is young Joshua Marmer, who plays Edward's son and holds his own opposite a cast in which everyone else is easily 10 years his senior. If that's not much of a compliment, it's a surprising achievement given the sloppy surroundings.
But even in the final scenes, in which he figures prominently (and when this Edward II gets the closest it does to compelling), it's not enough. This show, like any show, needs a consistent, identifiable point of view from beginning to end that will make the dialogue and action make sense, and make a point. In Shanks's world, meaning and action are non-existent, and suitable replacements aren't to be found in a series of flouncy line readings and fight scenes that could only play if the men participating seemed more likely to attack each other with their fists instead of Tupperware.
Creative Mechanics Theatre Company