nytheatre.com review by Ivanna Cullinan
December 1, 2007
(RE:) Directions Theatre Company's first production of its inaugural season bodes well for them. Their adaptation of Christopher Marlowe's Edward II has a strong take on the original piece with fairly brisk pace and a judicious use of faux news coverage that keeps the audience clear on its historical context. Eliminating minor characters and telescoping much of the action onto the major players, this well thought-out condensation of the script provides a vivid picture of the life and times of England's most notoriously homosexual king.
Upon his ascent to the throne, Edward recalls Gaveston, his favorite whom his father had banished, to the court. The promotion and subsequent favoritism Edward lavishes upon this commoner not only upsets his nobles but his queen, Isabella, who has already begun a dalliance with Mortimer. A series of alliances and betrayals follow and a significant number of the cast will be executed before Edward is deposed in favor of his son.
Although the play can easily be—and frequently is—reduced to simply a vehicle for demonstrating anti-homosexual prejudice, this production focuses most intently on political behavior. While it does make brief textual reference that Edward's disregard of Gaveston's class profoundly compounds the issue of his "unnatural" behavior, it has a strong supporting cast of well-defined characterizations that create a world of political posturing and uneasy alliances. The production doesn't entirely conquer the mid-to-late play dramatic lull inherent in Elizabethan drama—when what is going to happen is entirely clear and really they just need to get on with it—but an effective setting of certain speeches as press conference helps to move it along in an engaging manner.
Throughout the play there are smartly-done video "news" segments, crafting a sense of double dealing and power play that is frequently lost in productions of historically-based material. Most of the footage adds context, but as the cast is mostly young and the play covers many years, it would be better if a few of the details were more general. For example, the duration of Edward and Isabella's marriage is defined early on as being four years. That might be correct historically at the point when it is mentioned, but that detail sticks out and when Edward's heir is presented as a strapping teenager (played with sensitivity by Josh Brechner) and the mind immediately starts trying to identify when those time shifts occurred. Still, for the most part, the vignettes enrich the play and are delivered with appropriate network-style gravitas by David Ledoux.
Overall, Tom Berger's direction is solid and the cross-casting he employs works well in terms of having solid actors in good parts without disruption to audience belief and there is a lot of solid storytelling. However, there is a curious inconsistency generated by the cross-casting, which undercuts Edward's homosexuality being any kind of an issue for his court. Both Isabella (Anaïs Koivisto) and her lover, Mortimer (Cecile Monteyne), are played as and by women. While they give some of the strongest performances within the production, that casting choice begs the question—if homosexuality is an issue from Edward, why is it not an issue from Isabella? And if the point is that homosexuality doesn't matter, and class differences aren't given their due, then what is so unique about Edward II's situation? This quandary by no means sinks the production's overall effectiveness but does impact it significantly and is not helped by the haziness of Edward's arc as performed by Jason Summers. The basics of his behaviors are there but it is entirely unclear what differences exist in Edward's feelings for favorites Gaveston and Spencer, or how the continual thwarting of his power over the course of his reign affects him at different points.
There is much to enjoy and reflect on in this adaptation of Edward II. Certainly the clever costuming by David Withrow and smart stage design of Blair Mielnik deserve mention as well as the enormous amount of consideration that supports the entire endeavor. It is an impressive start and it will be interesting to see what is next for (RE:) Directions.