Edward II was King of England from 1307 until 1327, when he was deposed by his wife, the Queen Isabella, and her lover Mortimer. Although historians have not been kind to Edward II, whose rule was by all accounts disastrous, Christopher Marlowe wrote a fairly sympathetic play in the 16th century that took a frank view of the King’s bi-sexual proclivities and obsession with his court favorite, Piers Gaveston.
It’s this Marlowe play that inspired the current production at The New Theatre Project – “Edward the Second,” written by playwright-in-residence Jason Sebacher. It’s an exploration that runs true to TNTP’s stated mission of creating contemporary re-workings from the classical theater canon.
“We spent many months last year searching through anthologies and old books looking for just the right play to take on,” said Artistic Director Keith Paul Medelis. “Eventually we came to look at ‘Edward II,’ published in 1593. It is not frequently produced but there is magic in it.”
The TNTP production is a beguiling mash-up of Marlowe’s own poetic script and the comical use of modern idioms. In fact, the play opens with the original speech by the reprobate Gaveston (John Denyer) who has been recalled to England and is happily imagining the many ways he will pleasure the petulant King.
Edward II, played with malevolent childishness by Chris Jakob, abandons all his responsibilities in order to spend time with his darling Gaveston, anointing him with various titles at the expense of those trying to run the country. Scotland is winning a war in the north. France is plotting to strike while England is weak. Edward’s wife Isabella is losing patience. Edward’s brother Kent is frantically trying to rein him in. And Edward just doesn’t care.
For this production, the plot lines have been stripped down to the basics and all of the myriad characters have been consolidated into four historical persons: Edward II, his wife Isabella, his lover Gaveston, and his brother Kent.
The cast is all-male, as it would have been in Marlowe’s time. But there’s no attempt to mask the masculinity of Andrew Papa as Queen Isabella. And it makes sense, since she clearly has more balls than anyone else in the story. In this version, it is Kent (Artun Kicali) who is the queen’s lover, Edward II’s brother, and ultimately, his downfall.
But in this dark tale, the historical details aren’t important. It’s more an exploration of star-crossed lovers. With a wicked twist. We’ve all enjoyed the stories – fictional and historical – about the King or Princess in love with a commoner but forced to marry another for political reasons. Usually we root for true love to win out. But this play asks a lot of uncomfortable “what ifs.” What if the King is a brutal, dissolute monster? What if his lover is an opportunistic ne’er-do-well goading him to self-destruction? What if their relationship is literally bringing the country to ruin?
The lovers are not very sympathetic. And yet…
At the end of the play, when Edward II is in a cold dark dungeon (just as Marlowe describes it) we can’t help but feel he has done ample penance. And although historians do not agree on the exact way Edward ultimately died, this production selects the most gruesome of all the horrible choices.
In the Marlowe play, the story ends with the triumphant revenge of Edward III upon his father’s murderers. But in this TNTP’s production, Marlowe’s script is abandoned in the dungeon. Instead, this “Edward the Second” offers a modern epilogue of its own. Can true love transcend the barriers of time and space? Do enraptured souls continuously seek each other throughout eternity – perhaps perfecting themselves in subsequent incarnations? Or is it simply history repeating itself?
We are left with the lovely poetry of Marlowe – not from this play – but from his “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.”
COME live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove…
The four man cast, directed by Keith Medelis, is simply amazing. This is a tough, physical show. Most of the performers are within arm’s reach of the audience and any given time, and it’s pretty intense. And its honest. Steve Xander Carson, as fight choreographer, and Michael Hartung, as movement director, both earned their merit badges on this one.
Designs are also by Medelis, who makes effective use of the tiny performance space by filling it with candles and lanterns with stained-glass panels. The candles bathe everything in that golden light of antiquity, and as a bonus, lend the theatre a cathedral-like smell of beeswax. The floor is painted with a wide, silver-bordered stripe of red paint – suggesting the crimson carpet of a royal throne room. Eben Mannes assists with sound design, also a mash-up of the classical and the contemporary, which serves to add layered texture to the stylized, suggestive ambiance of the stage.
“Edward the Second” runs through March 31, 2013, with shows Fridays through Sundays at 8 p.m. at the Mix Studio Theatre inside The Mix resale store. This play contains violence, strong language, sexual simulations and nudity. Audience members under the age of 18 must be accompanied by an adult. Ticket prices are $15, or $10 for students and industry. For more information, visit the TNTP website or simply purchase your tickets here.
One last tip. If you happen to have dinner at the Bona Sera Cafe across the street (their menu is amazing) you can receive $1 off your ticket price. Just bring your receipt over to the Mix Studio Theater, located at 130 W. Michigan Avenue in Ypsilanti.