Marlowe's "Edward II" is a huge undertaking for a small independent company like Pet Brick: it has about forty speaking roles-- and that's Verse-speaking roles; dozens of anonymous soldiers, messengers, monks, lords and attendants, all male; a time span stretching over twenty years, in two dozen scenes; several battles, and a solemn ritual in which the severed head of a major character plays a role.
Pet Brick's Tremont Theatre space is a cement shell tucked inside the parking lot adjacent to Boston's largest and most luxurious theatre, home to the Ballet, and tours of Miss Saigon and Les Miz. David J. Miller 's set accommodates itself to the rectangular stone feel of the place with an arrangement of large cement-gray standing stones and lintels, a la Stonehenge, and a couple of stone benches. When an aras or banners are draped over these, the scene is inside a castle: a bench may easily become a throne. Costumes, wigs, weapons, crowns, -- all are plausible and of pleasing hue. The playing space is very wide and quite shallow, with a series of low step platforms providing somewhat of a rake, and bare tree branches stark the against the changing colors of the back wall panels. The set is imposing, and it imposes strict patterns on the actors if the audience seated -- as we were-- at the right and left of center are to be able to see any of what is happening on opposite side of the stage.
I was very impressed with the general competence level and maturity of director Patrick Wang's cast. Before this production the Marlowe I have seen staged-- four of "Faustus" and one "Tamberlaine"-- was done with casts made up mostly of college students or recent graduates. These productions often had flashes of brilliance in the central roles but much muddling through around the edges. They seemed far inferior to the impression I had of Marlowe's talent when reading him: his verbal felicity, his scope, the fearless depths to which he goes in pursuit of his theme. I've read about more successful productions, and longed to see one in which the cast was equal to the challenges of such a large and long play. Pet Brick's production is a clear, crisp, well spoken reading of the poet's lines (although with less relish of the poetry as poetry than I might prefer) with mature actors lending their experience and substance to the older character's roles. What I learned from it, unfortunately, is that Marlowe had minimal interest in his secondary characters for their own sake: good acting brings them to convincing life line by line, but does not render them interesting enough to sustain such a long play. In fact, competent acting of the multiple secondary characters by the supporting cast (Dev Luthra, Anthony Dangerfield, G.Zachariah White, Bern Budd, Bill salem, John Boller, Ozzie Carnan, Peter Lurie, Stephen Radochia, Joshua Wolkomir, Joshua Rollins) reveals some lack of complexity in the central roles, too.
The central roles are King Edward III and Queen Isabelle, Edward's favorite Gaveston, and his antagonist Mortimer. The conflict between the monarch and his nobles in Britain's middle ages is not automatically of interest to twenty first century Americans, but Edward II is currently of interest because of the form this conflict took: Edward plunged his country into civil war and risked his life because of his romantic love for a man. Edward's chief nobles were offended because the king heaped favors and wealth on a young man of middling birth, and they demanded that he banish him. The king believed that it was his God given right to love where he pleases, and give away whatever is his-- and that for his nobles to oppose the king's will and band together to pressure him to alter his conduct is treason. The king is not ashamed or embarrassed by his effusive love; he doesn't regard it as sinful or suffer remorse, even when the consequence is death and destruction. Edward goes to his grave declaring that he has done no wrong, sure that his delight in Gaveston is lawful, and his promotion of Gaveston's interests before all else well within his rights. This unabashed attitude seems so at odds with Christian dogma and with historically prevalent homophobia that commentators were led to opine that the love between the men could not have been a sexual one, but must have been merely a platonic "passionate friendship". Otherwise the play could not have been read or produced. But Edward is directly accused of sodomy in Marlowe's play, and the noble who defends him does not deny this: " Great men have had their minions", says the apologist, and cites Historic Worthies as far back as Socrates and Alcibiades as precedent. Gaveston, as a loyal subject who is in love with his king, has no doubt that it is his duty as well as his delight to please Edward in every way. He is utterly loyal, and dies bravely. Director Wang points out in his program notes that "there is no repentence....instead, they display and elegant mix of pride and confusion. That which nurtures me, destroys me." But even Mortimer, the king's over-reaching foe, is not offended by his monarch's sexual preference-- Mortimer concedes that a king may do as he pleases in bed. It's the making of an earl out of a mere gentleman, the heaping of offices and riches on an upstart and encouraging him to insult his noble betters, that is grounds for rebellion! Now that the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name is no longer silenced, theatres are ready to pull this classic work by the writer who notoriously declared "The man who loves not boys and tobacco is a fool" out of the closet.
This production is out there. Just in case the lines themselves are not clear enough, there is a liberal sprinkling of wanton caresses, an interpolated dumb show or two, some glimpses of nudity. Some few minor cuts have been made in the text, and fewer character names appear on the theatre program than in the script's list, but the only character that I missed was Edward's Niece, heiress and daughter of the late Gloucester-- her absence only noticeable because she is one of only two women in the dramatis personae. The Niece is still mentioned; Edward still awards her in marriage to his Gaveston, but she does not appear. The effect is to make Birgit Huppuch's Isabella the sole representative woman in a masculine world, and to erase any evidence of bisexuality in Gaveston..
Handsome Australian Mark Saturno in the title role is bold when in command, childish when frustrated, cruel on occasion, and suffers horrific indignities with heroic vulnerability in his final scene. Patrick Zeller has a delicate touch as Gaveston, a boyish charm and enthusiasm that carries him lightly over even such rough ground as the scene in which he beats up Bill Salem's unflappable bishop. Zeller doubles the murderer Lightborn, and lends the terrors of the last act a strange and wonderfully perverse tenderness. Kent French is an effective and admirable Mortimer, fearlessly playing for the highest stakes simply to demonstrate that he can. Birgit Huppuch successfully projects both haves of the two sided Queen: first the loving but neglected spouse, who does nothing but whine gentle chidings until Edward forces her to discover that she too can manipulate; after which she becomes the hardened adulteress whose manipulations lose her husband, lover, and son. Characteristically, Marlowe leaves the moment of Isabella's discovery out of his script, along with other opportunities for actors to react to one another in the moment and show us characters and relationships that change.
Considering that it encompasses a twenty year reign, "Edward II" has an economical structure, pruned of digressions and mercifully free of comic relief. But it seems longer when acted than when read because relationships never get a chance to ripen or ramify. What does ramify is the transgression embodied in Edward's death. It was too shocking to stage in 1890 or 1950, it is shocking today, and must have been a hundred times as shocking in 1590, when kings ruled by divine right. From the first performance of Edward II to the day before yesterday, there has not been another scene in which a monarch is so accused, exposed, humiliated and punished as King Edward is in the death scene in Marlowe's play. It is a blatant exempla of "poetic justice" inflicted on a sodomite, -- yet it is also blatantly analogous to the Crucifixion, where the mockery and torture of a guiltless King is performed for our good. Wang's staging vividly presents both images, and leaves the audience with unsettling matters well worth the pondering.