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A CurtainUp Review
Edward II

And now England is under us and God is over us and God is very old. ---Brecht's Edward II

Edward II
Edward II (Willie LeVasseur) and Gaveston (Noshir Dalal)
On the surface, the story of the fourteenth-century English King Edward II, chronicled first by Christopher Marlowe and less famously by a young Bertolt Brecht, is a straightforward action drama. In Brecht's Edward II -- now being performed by Creative Mechanics at the Bank Street Theater -- the hapless Edward is a flimsy and dissolute king who lavishes power on his male lover Gaveston, ignores Parliament's orders for Gaveston to be banished, and is ultimately deposed and murdered. His betrayers are then betrayed themselves, and the cycle of violence continues. It appears to be a smooth thriller -- and an articulate comment on the transience of power.

But making Brecht's Edward into absorbing theater is more difficult than it seems. The play provides a sincere and often eloquent analysis of the nature of power, but the humanity that would make it interesting on stage is elusive, forcing actors and directors to excavate if they seek something beyond allegory. And though they present a competent and thoughtfully executed production, that is something Creative Mechanics have not done.

Director Gabriel Shanks quickly hones in on Brecht's overriding theme: a critique of the horror of war and the randomness of power, concisely staging the senseless series of rebellions and feuds that spiral from a vendetta into open war. Shannon Maddox's costume pallette of dull brown and army green emphasizes the fickle nature of victory, painting each momentary winner in the same colors as whomever they have just defeated. The only exceptions are the preppily dressed Queen Anne and Mortimer who eventually team up to conquer Edward for good and then deposed by Edward's freshly crowned young son.

On his way to the execution block Mortimer articulately observes that power is less like a ladder than a wheel: only when one reaches the top is it possible to see that one is headed straight back to the bottom. It's an eloquent statement, but like the rest of the play, political theory is tough theater to swallow without humanity to sweeten and complicate it. That nuance is hard to find, because Edward II is a play without an obvious protagonist or even an appealing villain. Edward is vain and silly; Gaveston a nonentity; Mortimer arrogant; Queen Anne flimsy and opportunistic. Creative Mechanics' cast identifies these character traits and plays them with clarity, but none of the actors illuminate anything beyond this. There are no strong or surprising choices that would help us understand why Edward loves Gaveston so much in the first place, or why the lords hate him so -- or why we should care about the motivations or fates of anyone on stage.

Shanks does make an interesting statement about the people in his Edward II through Mortimer's and Anne's tweeds and v-necks, which not only link the two strategically and romantically but also set them apart as the only identifiably heterosexual characters. In the opening scene we see two male guards kissing as Gaveston sneaks back into England at Edward's request, and throughout the play Shanks capitalizes on Brecht's openness about the king's sexuality, creating a court that is nearly all male and heavily gay. This emphasis implies more clearly that Edward is persecuted for his haplessness and not his romantic choices. It's an interesting reading, but without interesting acting it doesn't add up to much more.

Creative Mechanics' production also suffers from efforts to make the play "relevant" to modern audiences by setting it in the "near future". Allen Cutler's set, through which this is conveyed, resembles an abstracted warehouse: paint-streaked columns and a red-spattered floor are grazed by yards of plastic sheeting, while dozens of bare lightbulbs, metal chains, and pulleys dangle from the ceiling. It's lovely, and the chorus of bare bulbs make for an immensely varied lighting pallette, but it's not a coherent vision of Edward II, or of a futuristic world.

It's also not clear why chronological setting matters: Edward II's analysis of war and greed and power are timeless and no one needs help applying its observations to their own era. There's nothing wrong with transplanting an historical tale into a new time period; it's just that doing so in order to emphasize the play's ideas has foregrounded thought at the expense of dramatic action. Edward II's statement on power is articulate and moving, but here, the production's the thing, and the challenge is to look beyond the play's message and find its theatrical expression.

Playwright: Bertolt Brecht
Director: Gabriel Shanks
Cast: Willie LeVasseur (Edward II), Noshir Dalal (Danyell Gaveston, Lightborn), Janice Herndon (Anne), Frank Blocker (Roger Mortimer), Avi Glickstein (Kent), Joshua Marmer (Edward III), Shannon Maddox (Lancaster), John Dohrmann (Archbishop of Winchester), Matthew Trumbull (Abbot of Coventry), R.J. Foster (Spencer), Josh Billig (Baldock), Christopher McAllister (Rice Ap Howell), Jeffrey James Keyes (Elder Gurney), Christian Felix (Younger Gurney), Oscar Castillo (Berkeley, Ensemble), J. Damian Houston (Monk, Ensemble)
Set Design: Allen Cutler
Costume Design: Shannon Maddox
Lighting Design: Erik C. Bruce
Sound Design: Chris Meade
Running time: 2 hours, plus ten-minute intermission.
From 9/08/05 through 9/25/05
Creative Mechanics at The Bank Street Theatre, 155 Bank StreetSmartTix 212-868-4444
Tickets: $15
Reviewed by Miriam Felton-Dansky based on 9/08/05 performance.
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