By Justin Hayford
In this era of auteurism, you believe at your peril that a director’s primary responsibility is to honor a playwright’s words. After decades of iconoclastic productions from directors like Peter Brook and Peter Sellars, it’s hardly surprising to see Dr. Faustus set in a laundromat or The Tempest performed on stilts by a solo actor reciting only the script’s adverbs. A purist may be momentarily amused or moved by such affronts, but can’t excuse the failure to stage the play as it was written.
Purists should probably stay far away from Sean Graney’s heavily edited, textually corrupted, and aggressively anachronistic staging of Christopher Marlowe’s The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of King Edward II, King of England, With the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer. Graney purges roughly half of Marlowe’s five-act script, exhibits a willful disregard for the culture in which the play was created, and makes a concerted effort to tell a story Marlowe didn’t mean to tell. Purists will certainly hate that so little of the 415-year-old original shows up onstage. But perhaps even more, they’ll hate how Graney’s impertinence makes for thrilling theater.
To create his thrill ride, Graney alters the text’s fundamental dynamics. Marlowe’s script tells the parallel stories of King Edward II, who reigned from 1307 to 1327, and Roger Mortimer, Earl of March—a pair of men with diametrically opposed relationships to power. Edward possesses it as a birthright, yet his weak nature—he’s utterly lacking in the sort of strategic acumen Elizabethans called “policy”—renders him unfit to govern. Patriotic Mortimer is a master of policy, yet wielding it against an inept king, even for the good of his country, is treason. As the play opens, the conflict between the two men is about to boil over. Edward revokes the banishment of his beloved minion Gaveston, a commoner upon whom he dotes like an infatuated teenage girl. Mortimer decides that if Edward won’t break with Gaveston, he must depose his king to save England.
In the first few scenes, Mortimer and various nobles aligned with him heap vitriolic scorn on Gaveston. Why is he such a problem? To a contemporary mind, the court is full of homophobes—a notion Graney underscores by making Gaveston a hot tranny mess, prancing around the court in a purple corset, full-length white mink, and diamond tiara. But during the Elizabethan Renaissance, a devoted, romantic friendship between two men was commonplace. For Marlowe the problem isn’t that Gaveston and Edward are queer (a social construct that didn’t exist for his audience) but that Edward’s devotion to Gaveston supersedes any concern for his queen, his court, or his nation, even as France prepares to invade.
Given that today’s average theatergoer doesn’t subscribe to an Elizabethan worldview, Graney’s decision to identify Edward’s homosexuality as the problem makes sense as a way to give Marlowe’s story contemporary urgency. But it also upsets the balance between Edward and Mortimer. Mortimer is no longer a nobleman trying to do right by his country, but a swaggering macho bigot, fomenting a self-righteous insurrection against the man he considers a faggot tyrant. This Mortimer is corrupt from the get-go, and his fall is anything but tragical. Graney might as well have edited the title of the play while he was at it.
Turning Edward II into a cage match between queerness and machismo simplifies a complex play. But simple isn’t necessarily simplistic, and the rigor with which Graney and company investigate this revisionist conceit generates 85 fast-paced minutes of psychological profundity. With emblematic characterizations and larger-than-life stage imagery (at one point Jeffrey Carlson’s Edward broods atop an enormous steel grate-cum-chandelier that swings from the ceiling), Graney pushes the action into a realm of pulp mythology where the ridiculous and the monstrous coalesce. The piece tantalizes and unsettles like a nightmare.
It’s an especially impressive feat given the myriad distractions Graney’s cast must confront in this promenade-style production. All the ground-floor seats in Chicago Shakespeare’s studio theater have been removed, leaving patrons to stand among the actors on Todd Rosenthal’s set: a jumble of chairs, fossilized benches, and corroded bits of furniture, all splattered with grayish gunk that makes the place feel like a recently drained sewer. While balcony seats above the stage are available, on opening night the stage was nearly as crowded as the dance floor at a popular club. It was hard to imagine where the play would take place.
Once the show began, though, it was instantly evident that there’d be no distinction between performing and audience spaces. The cast enacted the story in the middle of a mob.
Audience members are free to go anywhere, no matter how potentially disruptive to the show. In one pivotal scene, as Edward was being dressed down by Mortimer and his crony Lancaster, I ended up about eight inches from the king, pinned between him and his tormenters, feeling his discomfort viscerally and mesmerized by the electric blue gum he chewed desperately, as though it were a gag he couldn’t spit out.
It can take a while to get used to the mayhem, especially given the broadness and intensity of the acting taking place in your face. But this destabilizing dynamic makes it easy to let go of any preconceptions you’ve brought to the production. There’s no question that this is not Marlowe’s play but a grotesque pageant through which a familiar culture war is being waged (and military uniforms become increasingly numerous as the play proceeds). Beginning with Gaveston, that war’s casualties are led to a public bathroom in one corner of the stage, where they’re executed behind a translucent screen in horrific fashion.
The cast’s ability to credibly populate this phantasmagoria is extraordinary. Carlson’s Edward is an infuriating, heartbreaking mixture of blind privilege, callous self-indulgence, and childlike vulnerability. Scott Cummins’s Mortimer is an overzealous frat boy, pathetically trapped within in the strict social limits of the “good soldier.” As Edward’s Queen Isabella, Karen Aldridge is at once a wounded, forsaken wife and a bloodthirsty schemer wrapped in courtly propriety.
Ultimately this Edward II is the story of a Machiavellian world where latent militarism gradually rises to the surface and consumes everything. Edward’s queerness becomes symbolic of all the allegedly degenerate human impulses at odds with despotism. It’s not the play Marlowe wrote, yet the text supports every radical choice Graney makes. Graney, like Marlowe, creates a world ruled by power for power’s sake, where everything that doesn’t fit is destroyed. Finding yourself trapped there for an evening is a singularly bracing experience.