October 9, 2008 by Hedy Weiss
Be forewarned: Edward II, the play about sex, politics and transgression that was penned by Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe, is not for the meek. This story—about a king whose unrestrained passion for his homosexual lover trumps any concern for the crown (and the security of his country)—is a literal and figurative bloodbath. The work is rife with the most hideous acts of torture and some of the most fearsome weapons (iron crowbars, giant shears, fiery pokers) you will glimpse on a stage.
And in his thrillingly ritualistic yet richly emotional production for Chicago Shakespeare’s Upstairs Theater, director Sean Graney has pulled out all the stops, creating a highly unstable medieval public square (with plenty of modern-day echoes) where most of the audience forms the walkabout crowd, while the rest watch from balcony seats, as if looking out their window.
Working with a team of masterful designers (Tony Award-winner Todd Rosenthal, Alison Siple, Philip Rosenberg and Michael Griggs), Graney has devised a world of decadence and brutality, at once hideously real and powerfully stylized. Edward II (a brave, intensely believable portrayal by Jeffrey Carlson) brashly risks all to proclaim his love for the flamboyant Gaveston (La Shawn Banks). He also alienates his wife, Queen Isabella (a ferocious Karen Aldridge), and infuriates the powerful military leader Mortimer (an ideally cold-eyed Scott Cummins), who sees a country at peril as he lusts for power.
Edward’s inner toughness is revealed in his final ordeal. And tragically, his young son (the wonderful Zach Gray), who inherits the crown, can clearly be seen to have learned a lesson about power, and shows every sign of emerging as a necessary brute, though still a boy. John Lister, Erik Hellman, Kurt Ehrmann, Chris Sullivan, Lea Coco and Kareem Bandealy all add richly to the mayhem and moral wreckage here.