Fast and furious ‘Edward II’ puts Marlowe in the mosh pit

by Chris Jones

No young director I’ve seen is better than Sean Graney at promenade staging: a kind of theater where the audience is shoved into a big, open space with the actors and the two sides duke it out for dominance.

Promenade stagings I’ve seen over the years in New York and London have generally been sedate affairs, wherein the audience wanders politely along pre-ordained tracks as if pondering artworks in a museum. Graney, who is making his much-anticipated debut with top-flight actors at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, does in-your-face promenade staging, Chicago-style.

In his very arresting take on Christopher Marlowe’s “Edward II,” Graney’s actors keep civilly but decisively pushing people out of their way as they dash from palace to bedchamber to torture chamber. One can choose to sit in the balcony and voyeuristically observe this fertile, blood-spattered scene—the sea of heads and bodies looks like a cross between a gruesome theatrical pageant and a rave. Or you can participate therein and experience the full Monty, standing just inches away as Marlowe’s play winds to its notorious climax involving a kingly victim and a red hot poker.

But I’ll say this. Very few theaters in very few global cities would have the guts to do this kind of work. And if you’re looking for a date with a difference this weekend—something, say, to peg yourself as an unusually hip and sophisticated catch—this is your show.

That said, Graney isn’t doing Marlowe’s play, regardless of billing. He is doing a formative riff on the play. Even with a few judicious cuts, “Edward II” takes more than three hours to stage. Graney’s show lasts 85 minutes. He’s jettisoned well over half of the text. Therewith, he has jettisoned most of its contemplative soul. The great themes of the play really don’t track in this truncated form—characters take huge, unmotivated leaps.

You can see this most obviously in Isabella, played by the extraordinary Chicago actress, Karen Aldridge. In the early parts of the show, Aldridge powerfully shows us as a woman who’ll do anything to engage the passion of her kingly husband (played by Jeffrey Carlson, whose mid-Atlantic style is at striking variance from the rest of the cast) even tolerating an extra-curricular relationship with his notorious friend Gaveston (La Shawn Banks, who just lets it all rip). But just as you’re investing in her gut-wrenching journey, great chunks of the play disappear and when Aldridge reappears, she seems to be playing a whole different character.

If, like me, you often prefer Marlowe’s rumbling, disruptive, passionate writing to Shakespeare’s more practiced tragic hand, these things will frustrate. Graney’s Achilles’ heels as a director (and adapter) remain the lack of quiet clarity or emotional focus. This is a cold, distancing, jittery, wildly imaginative take on a thoughtful, warm-blooded playwright. It’s ideal for Jacobean drama, but I’d argue that the more humane Marlowe needs more heart.

He also needs his themes extracted more explicitly. For Edward, Gaveston is a political problem not unlike that of Tony Rezko for Barack Obama. But should you kiss off your friends (or lovers, or spouse) for a hostile outside world? And what if that further poisons your environment? And yourself? Marlowe is asking such questions. This production isn’t.

Graney, of course, is under no obligation to be true to Marlowe. He is free to deconstruct his work. And so he does here, all guns blazing, with the help of a very accomplished, gutsy and dedicated cast of actors. This is a show that reveals, even revels in, the passionate brutality of Marlowe’s world and the agonizing turns of life’s screws. But I don’t think you’ll see much of yourself in any of these people. Pity. You should.