Happy 443rd birthday Christopher Marlowe. Please tell Shakespeare I say hello, presuming you’re both in the same place. I have to believe the two would enjoy sharing a cocktail in the afterlife. They share so much in common. Both English born in 1564; both immaculate playwrights. Both ran off to London to write their plays, and other than the plays they wrote, we haven’t much hard evidence to ponder. Some say they may have met in late 1591 at London’s Rose Theatre. Perhaps the most important connection between the two entitles Marlowe to be Shakespeare’s predecessor in English drama. Victorian poet Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) observed that Marlowe was "the father of English tragedy and the creator of English blank verse (and) was therefore also the teacher and the guide of Shakespeare." I must admit, it’s tough to disregard the parallels between Marlowe’s Edward II and Shakespeare’s Richard III, but I’ll let you be the judge of that.
And thanks to Bay Area director/actor Demetrius Martin, let the judging begin by attending his production of Edward II, playing at San Francisco’s Exit on Taylor. This trimmed down, 95-minute production including intermission places Edward’s throne in the 1950’s McCarthy era, and draws a straight line to the “Lavender Scare” that plagued the U.S. State Department, and those deemed “sexual deviants,” according to the U.S. Congress. First, I must commend Martin for taking a clear-cut stance on this play. Critics of Edward’s reign differ in opinion—some saying he was deposed for his lack of attention to his throne, others because of his overt attention to his probable lover, Gaveston. Martin shows great sympathy for the plight of King Edward, even though in his mission statement, Martin claims, “Your sympathies may first be with Mortimer Jr. (Todd Pickering) as Edward (Ryan Montgomery) seems to ignore his duties in favor of “frolicking” with Gaveston, but then they might shift when you realize that Mortimer uses this homosexual relationship as a means to grab power.” I don’t think I ever had an ounce of sympathy for Mortimer Jr., as Pickering plays the perfect rotten scoundrel from beginning to end. Granted, Montgomery’s Edward more closely resembles a lamenting star-cross’d lover than a King, Montgomery’s lovelorn lamentations far outshine the deprivation of the state. And for this, I find it refreshing that a director has the ballocks to make a statement. To choose a side.
That alone makes this a play to see, but Martin’s troupe requires a bit of polishing before reaching perfection. Montgomery’s performance is unbalanced. At times, I had to make up this king’s words myself, as Montgomery has the tendency to murmur his lines, and quickly at that. In fact, I wouldn’t have minded sitting in the theatre for an additional fifteen minutes if the entire cast would just slow down their speech. But when Montgomery is on, he’s on. He has something about him that reminds me of the Pacino scream or the Cruise run. Sort of the rational moment for being perfectly irrational. But I did not see this brilliance until just before intermission, just after Gaveston’s death, during which Montgomery seems to be involved in an internal and external battle within himself—clenching his head, almost squirming out of his body as he tries to embody anew, his face physically changing in effect—as he resolves to become a new king. His voice penetrates the theatre, and it happens again and again in the second half of this production.
I was sad to see Gaveston go, as director/actor Demetrius Martin proves a charming and charismatic lover for our king. Their relationship is far out of the closet and for the audience to witness as the two strip off clothing, straddle one another upon a chair/throne—the only prop on this stage—and engage in a most passionate kiss. Martin brings a playfulness to the first half of the production, peeking from behind curtains to engage the audience in his little asides. His death is the turning point, and fortune’s fall for the tragic figures in this play, regardless of where your sympathies lie.
Usually a welcome presence for me in the Shakespeare community is Jack Halton, who plays Mortimer Sr., although his role takes on the deleted role of Kent, brother to Edward II, and sage of the play. This morphing of characters works fine, but Halton was off on this night. His character is supposed to represent the collective thought of the audience as the wise spectator watching from the sidelines, but Halton must first connect with his audience before he can speak for us. I know he is capable of such feats, so I assume some polish will brighten up this star in the weeks to come.
The main problem I have with this production is the delivery of soliloquies. Again with the sympathy card, I find it difficult to offer any to our neglected Queen Isabella (Alexandra Matthew) when her woes are spoken to the theatre’s ceiling in relation to Montgomery’s delivery to the floor and backdrop. I adore Matthew’s 50’s-esque, calf-length satin gowns, and I found her acting consistent when her fellow actors joined her onstage, but I’m a stickler for the soliloquy. This is a golden opportunity for the actor to connect with his audience, and for the audience to understand motivation. Let me in on your secret thoughts and ambitions, and lean in a little when you tell me. And while we’re at it, can you speak up a little bit Aaron Garfinkel (Edward III)? You are going to be King by the end of this play, and I’d like to know you have a voice and demeanor to back up the title. Fifteen? year old Garfinkel does suddenly grow into his role at the end of the play when banishing his mother to the Tower, and Matthew proves powerful in her response.
Pickering understands this concept, and when he was on the stage, soliloquy or not, I was engaged. Whether reading Latin, adjusting his Buddy Holly glasses, or pummeling Gaveston to an inch of his life before throwing him out the door for a Shakespeare-like offstage death, Pickering is perfect. His sinister voice matches his character to a T, and his villainous nature carries him to the end of the play. Not an ounce of sympathy for this Mortimer Jr., but I do offer him a well-deserved “Bravo!”
In every Shakespeare play I review, there is always a moment for which I wait. The plucking of Gloucester’s eyes; Henry V’s “Once more into the breach!” “Et tu, Brute?” With Marlowe’s Edward II, this moment comes in the end – literally. Martin chooses to omit Edward’s assassin “Lightborn” (Marlowe’s pseudonym for “Lucifer,” and the representation of pure evil) from the play, rather calling upon two guards/assassins (Tom Doud as Guerny and Zeb Homison as Matrevis) to commit regicide. The once vest and bow tie clad Doud as Spencer Jr. later takes on the role of the assassin Guerny, although I saw evidence of Lightborn shining through as Doud held the roaring flame of his lighter under a long rod. Martin’s lead follows legend over any evidence of Marlowe’s stage direction, as the rod impales Edward from behind. And believe it or not, the scene is brutal, yet tastefully done. My expectations were well met.