A King’s Fall
The Shakespeare Theatre Company wasn’t kidding when it said it was mushrooming far beyond its accustomed cultural pursuits.
With its modern, imposing architecture, the new Sidney Harman Hall sharply contrasts with the traditional intimacy of the company’s other venue, the Lansburgh. But in addition to the physical differences between its venues, the Shakespeare Theatre has also decided to climb on a far-out limb by christening its new digs with a revolving repertory of two works by Christopher Marlowe.
Although Marlowe was important in his own right—he and Shakespeare led parallel lives and inspired each other’s work—Marlowe died at the age of 29 and his mere seven plays are obscure and lack the Bard’s fluidity, making them riskier to produce.
“Edward II,” paired here with “Tamburlaine,” was Marlowe’s final play, tracing the fall of a king who self-destructed because of his love for another man. Because of its homosexual content, the play was deemed “un-produceable” for a 300-year stretch, until the 20th century. Although the content wouldn’t normally surprise a modern audience, Edward’s unabashed treatment of homosexuality against a backdrop of Elizabethan prudence could jar even the most urbane theatergoer.
After having just been made King of England after his father’s death, Edward is the ultimate tragic gay hero. His blind, all-consuming devotion to Piers Gaveston—a French, lower-class boy toy, no less—incites his court to rebel and ultimately destroy the happy couple.
Perfectly cast as Edward is the sprightly, well-accomplished Wallace Acton, whose diminutive size and immense stage presence fit his character’s mix of moxie and defenselessness. Gaveston—played by pretty boy Vayu O’Donnell—is portrayed as a bratty opportunist, which makes watching Edward throw everything he has away for him that much more painful.
Edward is clearly an outsider from the play’s start, when he attends his father’s funeral and the first spotlight highlights Edward’s petite frame, leaving the other mourners in a dim background. Once the stage is cleared of others, Edward immediately sends a love letter to the exiled Gaveston, inviting him back into his court. From then on, until his gruesome end, Edward exists in a separate, Pollyannaish world in which he flaunts his sexuality, taunting the rest of England’s nobles while oblivious to their threats.
The Shakespeare Theatre sets the play, written in 1592, in the roaring 1920s, which makes Edward and Gaveston’s openly gay relationship more credible. Reminiscent of his animated incarnation of Hamlet in the company’s 2001 season, Acton gives us an entertaining Edward as he prances around the stage like a schoolboy with his first crush. It’s easy to see why he’s so distracted by the attractive Gaveston, who naively enables his destruction.
To seemingly distract the audience from the play’s impending tragedies, “Edward II” camps up the gay theme and milks it for all it’s worth. Once summoned back to England, Gaveston brings with him a crowd that could easily be mistaken for a gay parade during Mardi Gras, as scantily clad men—on stilts, wearing ball gowns and mammoth, feathered wings—romp onto the stage. Then, the chandeliers are dropped from the ceiling and the boys perform an eye-popping, festive drag show, much to Edward’s glee. In fact, the boys make multiple appearances during the first act—doing the tango in tuxedos, wreaking havoc on the royal court—while Edward and Gaveston look on, engaged in public displays of affection.
The highlight is when the lovebirds are pushed onto the stage in the king’s throne, with Edward sitting on Gaveston’s lap. Accompanied by their boy chorus, they’ve apparently emerged after a night of exotic partying, only to be confronted by the somber and punishing court noblemen, who are dressed in dark browns and grays—looking for all practical purposes like Condoleezza Rice and her State Department entourage.
It is at this point that the party is over, and the battle between the noble court and the gays is on—and it’s no surprise who the losers are.
In addition to Acton, the acting by the rest of the crew is admirable. Deanne Lorette plays Isabella, Edward’s long-suffering wife, who by play’s end turns into a sort of revengeful Cruella Deville, while Andrew Long is solid as the power-hungry Mortimer, Edward’s nemesis.
Another bright spot is the costuming by Murell Horton, which is stupendous. At one point Gaveston enters with stunning gold wings on his back—an image that comes back after his murder to comfort Edward in his suffering.
Those are the touching moments. Yet overall, the script’s jerking quality tends to jolt the audience out of their suspension of disbelief. There is too much repetition and indecision on the part of the characters that takes away from their actions. Gaveston is exiled, then comes back, then is exiled again, then called back, only to be chased down again. Edward is asked to give up his crown, says no, then yes, then grabs it back, then relinquishes it.
The result feels melodramatic, which dilutes the play’s ultimate effect. Intermittent irritation replaces what should be a satisfying steady stream of identification and catharsis for the audience.
Nevertheless, it is a noble endeavor to resurrect a relatively unknown play about how society deals with “the other”—in this case, gays—although the production is a rough and emotionally painful road to that end.
Edward II through Jan. 6 Shakespeare Theatre’s Sidney Harman Hall 610 F St., NW. Tickets are .50 to .75. For more information, please call (202) 547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.
About the Author
Lisa Troshinsky is the theater reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.