Regional Reviews: Boston
Also see Nancy's review of The Night of the Iguana
"Because he loves me more than all the world," Edward responds. Maurice Emmanuel Parent, in a commanding performance, makes these words central to his portrayal of the king. From this simple line springs the soul of the Actors' Shakespeare Project's staging of Christopher Marlowe's Edward II. Edward and Gaveston's devotion is already there in Marlowe's verse; the men favor each other above all else, even (it seems) country and royal duty. But in the hands of director David R. Gammons, this brutal sixteenth-century tragedy becomes a full-blown romance, a love story with a madly beating heart.
That vision may seem incongruous as you enter the Charlestown Working Theater, which has been made over as a hybrid underground tunnel and gay bathhouse (designed by Sara Brown). Suggestive voices over the loudspeaker invite us to "play safe" while we're inside. Red lightbulbs flicker through the steam. Come to the cabaret, old chum, the eerie mood beckons to us. In his director's notes, Gammons references the mid-1980s AIDS crisis and the role of bathhouses as a safe meeting space for gay men in the at that time. Even though the outside world threatens to intrude upon their happiness, Edward and Gaveston are free here to enjoy stolen minutes together. Their reunion takes the form of a passionate and sweetly humorous dance, set to a techno-pop soundtrack. As Parent and Eddie Shields (Gaveston) perform it, this is a real, tender consummation. (Of course it helps that both men have great chemistryand are capable of being very physical onstage.)
Gammons prunes Marlowe's sprawling character list down to eight players, driving the story without detours toward its inevitable conclusion. The plot against Edward is propelled by Queen Isabella, the Earl of Lancaster, and the villainous Mortimer, who conspire to take down the king. Marlowe's twists and turns can be wild: allegiances shift on a dime, players go into and return from exile with haste, and several men are slain before our eyes. The smaller cast and pared-down script go a long way to letting us follow each character's (often sinister) motives with ease.
Nigel Gore is a Lancaster of the old guard, a gentleman on the surface but one all too willing to rough men up and get his hands dirty. Alex Pollock, playing his accomplice Mortimer, laces nearly every line with a dryly demented sense of humor. As another of Edward's enemies, Mortimer becomes more and more grotesque as the play wears on. It's absurdgiggle-inducing, evento hear Pollock whistle the Village People's "YMCA" as a prelude to one murder, A Clockwork Orange-style. There's strong support, as well, from Nile Hawver as the Earl of Kent (the king's brother) and Stewart Evan Smith's Spencer, the king's constant companion once Gaveston is imprisoned.
With so many strengths, it's a shame this Edward II doesn't know how to handle its queen. The bathhouse milieu offers a private space that's sexually charged and also dangerous; you could imagine clandestine revenge plots being hatched there. But Queen Isabella, the only woman on stage, does not belong in this secret men's-only space. Jilted by her husband, Isabella plays a key role in Edward's eventual downfall. But Jennie Israel's interpretation feels out of place. Her Isabella seems so dejected, a pitiable figure unsuited to Edward; at one point he cruelly spits in her face. Even her costuming is curious; the men's garb (by Rachel Padula-Shufelt) cleverly mixes the medieval and contemporarylots of leather, often revealingbut the queen is dressed in a willowy ballgown that looks old-fashioned beside the others.
Make no mistake, this staging favors the men. Nowhere is this more evident than Parent in the lead role, captivating as a king doomed because of the man he adores. His Edward is a lover more than a ruler, a caring and tempered men who grows increasingly paranoid as the plot thickens. And in his final scenes, Parent digs deep into the monarch's despair while curled up naked in a narrow wash bin that doubles as his prison.
I won't give away the ending, other than to promise that it veers away from the brutal one Marlowe wrote. There's been plenty of cruelty already. Instead, Gammons gives us an ending made for today, where "Love wins" and "Love is love is love" freely can be shouted in the streets. This is an Edward II that looks for something beautiful to combat all the violence and bigotry out there. When the world hates, we must love even more.
Edward II presented by the Actors' Shakespeare Project through March 19, 2017, at the Charlestown Working Theater, 442 Bunker Hill St., Charlestown, MA. Tickets range from $30-50, and can be purchased at actorsshakespeareproject.org or through OvationTix at (866) 811-4111.