Regional Reviews: San Francisco
ACT'S PRODUCTION OF MARLOWE'S
The American Conservatory Theatre is presenting its most controversial play of this season. Marlowe's play has been trimmed down and some of the scenes are played quickly, almost MTV-like episodes of men in gyms, men in sexual positions, and men with nothing on but their smiles or smirks, whatever the case may be.
I have seen this play performed twice before by the Royal National Theatre in London; once with the great Sir Ian McKellen as Edward II. Both productions that I saw were not as erotic as the Mark Lamos's creation. I also saw Derek Jarman's polemic and controversial 1991 film. It should be pointed out that this isn't an easy play to stage but ACT did an outstanding production. It was a visual stimulus the eye.
This is the story of England's King Edward II and the sexual and politics of the 14th Century. Edward thinks more of his friend Gaveston than losing his holdings in Normandy and Scotland. He spends all of his time and the country's money on the young Gaveston. His jealous wife, Isabella, is angry at Gaveston's hold on the king and she makes an alliance with the Baron Montimer. The alliance eventually becomes a love affair. The homophobic barons are against the Gaveston's hold on the king. One of the barons is particularly angry about the flamboyantly "gay" dress code of the court; he complains of being ridiculed by stylish queers. Also, to make matters worst, Gaveston is a commoner.
All conspire to rid Gaveston of the king. This is done with great effect at the end of the first act, however, the king finds a new friend, Spencer, who becomes the king's paramour. Civil war occurs between the king and the barons in which the barons are defeated. Isabella and her son, the future King Edward III, flee to France and form an army to overthrow the king. This is done successfully and Edward 2 is imprisoned where he is tortured and degraded. Montimer sends an assassin to kill Edward 2 by the horrible means of a red hot poker and he is skewered on a spit. This we see on stage to horrible effect.
Things do turn worst for Isabella and her lover Montimer. The new King, Edward III, finds out that Montimer was behind the death of his father and the young boy slits the throat of Montimer and throws his mother, the Queen, into prison. It all ends as the young Edward III begins his reign.
Director Mark Lamos strips about one-third of the play in an effort to recapture the shock value of the story. He focuses on the erotic brutality and brutal eroticism in the male power struggles of the period. We see hangings, beatings, stabbings, male and male sex, female and male sex and even a crucifixion. The director has piled shock effects upon shock effects and in a way it did undercut the impact of the play's grisliest scene. The opening scene is done in pantomime with two scenes taking place simultaniously. On stage left you see Gaveston frolicking naked with three other men on a bed. It is more like a choreographed ballet than an actual erotic situation. On stage right we see the coronation of King Edward 2 with all the pomp and circumstances of the occasion. My eye kept on this scene rather then the erotic scene of the left. I found it more interesting. There are scenes that take place in a gym and a bathhouse, leather costumes abound in these scenes. All of the actors are either in their 20's and 30's are all have bodies to show they work out regularly.
Director Mark Lamos has done a superb job in the presentation of this Edward 2. (Mr Lamos recently directed the opera The Great Gatsby for the Metropolitan Opera and the world premier of Central Park which was televised live from Lincoln Center.) He draped the stage with a gauzy black veil that opens onto quick scenes. There are stately shadow plays, mirrors, metal catwalks, gym equipment, and white sheets that are pulled back and forth. The lighting is outstanding with sets bathed in white lights, glowing golds, and sensuous pinks.
Malcolm Gets plays Edward 2. His New York credits include A New Brain and Hello, Again He also had won the Obie award for Merrily We Roll Along"and was seen in the Encore series of The Boys from Syracuse. For five years he played Richard on the NBC's series Caroline in the City. I thought Mr Gets was a little weak in the first act, however, he came into his own in the second act. He gave a solid and well shaped performance as the 14th century king. He was particularly good in the last scenes of the play.
Outstanding was Christopher Baker who played Gaveston. He is a new and up and coming actor from the Tennessee Rep and I think we will hear a lot about him in the future. He has an excellent stage-trained voice and his posture is marvelous. Vivienne Benesch, who was last seen on Broadway in Deep Blue Sea, gave an impressive performance. She gave her speech a psychological depth and nuance, and Dan Snook gave an impressive performance as Montimer.
I doubt if this play could play in many major cities of the United States. I can just see the extreme right going after the homophobic content of the production. I am happy to say that here in San Francisco the straight and gay audience can accept this as a great production. It played through June 4th.