That suspenseful fencing skirmish is one of the high points of this energetic, visually rich production directed by Joseph W. Ritsch. It’s also one of the moments when “E2” most successfully marries old and new. Fusing contemporary concerns and characters with the story line of Marlowe’s 16th-century play about a gay monarch, “E2” sometimes feels forced or flat. But it can also have the potency of a deftly wielded epee.
Playwright Bartlett, who lives in Maryland, skillfully distills Marlowe’s large cast of courtiers, clerics and other characters to just a handful of figures, the protagonists in an engrossing, romantic saga that also reflects meaningfully on homophobia, privacy, social inequality and political corruption. After inheriting the throne, the warm, willful, naive Edward (Zack Powell) shirks his official duties to spend blissful hours with his lover, Piers de Gaveston (Alejandro Ruiz), on whom he lavishes money and the title of Earl of Cornwall. Edward’s neglected wife, Queen Isabella (Dane Figueroa Edidi), frets about the situation. So does her admirer, Mortimer (Robbie Gay), who doubts Edward’s professional abilities and believes the country is not ready for a gay king. As Twitter trolling and a bomb attack reveal widespread public discontent and anti-LGBTQ bias, Edward struggles to reconcile his responsibilities with his desire for happiness.
Powell delivers a knockout performance as a hugely appealing, stubborn, boyish Edward. When this blue blood dances with his lover in the rain, or plays Mario Kart in bed, or tries to bond with his son (a very good Zach Rakotomaniraka), you root for him, even as you observe his flaws. Gay’s pitch-perfect Mortimer is a worthy foil, exuding an air of reasonableness tempered with menace. Mortimer’s occasional bursts of playfulness — at one point, he daubs Isabella’s lips with champagne as they lounge on her bed — adds to the character’s humanity.
Edidi’s hyperbolic acting style can be jarring. This regal Isabella comes across as a larger-than-life figure from a long-ago epic, which clashes with the more naturalistic turns by the other actors.
The script, too, has weaknesses. With its mixture of antiquated (Edward and Isabella’s arranged marriage) and cutting-edge(Facebook) references, the fictional world can be an uneasy concoction. That discord is most glaring in passages that sound flat, stiff or overly blunt, seemingly because of a disconnect between modern characters and a 16th-century worldview.
“I am more than an idea,” Edward asserts at one point, talking to Mortimer about the monarchy.
The arresting visual design, on the other hand, succeeds at weaving old and new ideas. Designed by B. Benjamin Weigel, the modern costumes with Renaissance-evoking details correlate perfectly with the play’s conceit. Scenic designer Nathaniel Sinnott’s set, with stark modernist lines and glittery black surfaces, has the chilly gleam of a luxury skyscraper lobby, while the multimedia design, by Sarah Tundermann, includes projections depicting stained-glass windows and historic architecture.
It’s through projected video that we get a hint of Edward’s grim fate. Fortunately, in part because Powell’s acting is so blazingly real, Edward’s happier moments — including his dance with Gaveston, and his trouncing of Mortimer in that fencing match — are what haunt our memory.
E2 by Bob Bartlett. Directed by Joseph W. Ritsch; lighting design, Conor Mulligan; sound, Sarah O’Halloran; intimacy and fight director, Jenny Male; assistant director, Jade Brooks-Bartlett. About 90 minutes. Tickets: $15-$40. Through Nov. 17 at the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center on the campus of Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Pkwy., Columbia, Md. 443-518-1500. repstage.org.