Where Frankness Is King
Gay Theme Flourishes in This 'Edward II'
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 12, 2007
Among the sad stories of the death of kings, few come to a more gruesome finish than that of Christopher Marlowe's "Edward II," the tale of a monarch who falls savagely from grace after falling desperately for a man.
The play is an Elizabethan curiosity, a work unfolding around an overt homosexual relationship in the English court. And though director Gale Edwards cannot resist indulging at times in a bit of campiness, her seductive treatment for the Shakespeare Theatre Company persuasively pumps up the love story, turning the dramatist's circa-1592 contribution to the newborn genre of English history play into an elegant document of gay martyrdom.
Her decision to shift the setting to the 1920s -- Edward II ruled in the early 1300s -- not only gives the costume designer, Murell Horton, an excuse to deck the dandies out in Jazz Age finery. It also links up niftily to the undoing of another lovestruck Edward, who abdicated the British throne in 1936 so that he could marry an American, Wallis Simpson, as the Duke of Windsor. No king, it seems, reigns with impunity over the morality of his time.
The director enthrones the splendid Wallace Acton on the stage of Sidney Harman Hall. Diminutive of stature but towering of heart, Acton brings a quality of soul-baring ache to Edward. He is portrayed here as a man of passion done in by a circle of men and women who see his love for the "inveigling Frenchman" Gaveston (Vayu O'Donnell) less as threat to the sanctity of the crown than as convenient royal weakness to be milked to their advantage.
"Edward II" is paired in repertory at the new Harman Hall with Marlowe's rarely performed "Tamburlaine," and it proves a far more enjoyable evening. And though you tend to feel the longueurs in the epic, one-note brutality of "Tamburlaine," the matchup of these works opens an instructive window on the range of Marlowe, a playwright so greatly overshadowed by the celebrated contemporary whose work he influenced and by which he was at other times inspired.
Scholars often note, in fact, the similarities in the narrative arcs and other aspects of "Edward II" and Shakespeare's "Richard II," the tale of another deposed English king whose arrogance yields to an ennobling sense of vulnerability and, in the humbling end, humanity. Happily, too, the current production reinforces what the playwright's fans believe: that Marlowe's account of an English regicide can be made as playable today as one of Shakespeare's.
The nature of Edward II's sexuality is not as transparent in history books as it is in Marlowe's text. It's even less ambiguous in Edwards's sleek mise-en-scene: The director runs at full gallop with the concept of Edward and Gaveston throwing caution to the wind and their gayness in the faces of the shocked aristocracy. They embrace and kiss passionately as the appalled court looks on. (Moving the story up to the 1920s makes their exhibitionism more believable.) And while the king sires an heir with his French queen, the devious Isabella (played incisively by the comely Deanne Lorette), the marriage is portrayed as an utter sham.
Never for a millisecond would this Edward wish he knew how to quit his Gaveston. Director Edwards affirms their intimacy quickly: In the funeral scene for Edward I that she adds at the outset, the new king recites the first lines of a love letter -- "Come, Gaveston, and share the kingdom with thy dearest friend" -- that Marlowe instead had Gaveston read.
The director also spices things up at court, inventing a soiree that the guests attend in drag. And hey, behind the curtains, isn't that the Bishop of Coventry, being pleasured in X-rated fashion by one of the pretty young things?
The divine decadence of the affair -- yes, it's a little too garishly Studio 54 -- reaches a pinnacle in the arrival of O'Donnell's sylphlike Gaveston, carried in and outfitted with golden wings. (A dish, apparently, fit for a king.) As we are still in the realm of Elizabethan drama, Gaveston meets the requisite unfortunate end. And as the director apparently has studied the plays of Tony Kushner, the visage of a winged Gaveston will make periodic magical returns from the afterlife, to comfort Acton's increasingly hunted and tormented Edward.
The effect is to enshrine their love as something holy, an idea developed further when Edward, seeking refuge in the church he has only recently scorned, is cornered by his pursuers. Behind him hangs a huge stained-glass window -- the impressive handiwork of set designer Lee Savage -- of Christ enfolding a lamb in his arms. The symbolism is not lost. Nor is the foreshadowing of the king's own suffering.
The emphatic underlining of Edward's forbidden sexuality does help to make sense of the barbarity of his execution, administered by the effective James Konicek, portraying an assassin dressed in the terrifyingly banal work clothes of an insurance salesman. In his comprehension of Edward's abject powerlessness, Acton is riveting, even more so because the vocal authority and corresponding dignity he brings to Edward never flags.
O'Donnell's boy-toy of a Gaveston is aptly petulant; the actor makes you understand why the noblemen can't wait to take him out. As Edward's ambitious persecutor-in-chief, Andrew Long applies all the lip-curling snarl the part calls for. Lorette, meanwhile, wears Horton's drop-dead green gown as if it were the skin of a gorgeous reptile.
The confidence with which these actors tell the story helps to show why "Edward II" belongs in the canon of kingly tragedies that deserve to be recounted more often.