By Joseph Geha
By Jonathan Kiefer
By Katie Tandy
By Mollie McWilliams
By Jennifer Baires
By Jonathan Curiel
By Sherilyn Connelly
Edward II, like Lorca, died in a political morass with a dangerous weapon aimed up his rectum, in homage to his preference for men. Christopher Marlowe retold this story powerfully in Edward II -- hot iron and all -- in 1592, but by the time the copy of the play I happen to have came out in 1940, some editor had changed the death scene. "King Edward is murdered by holding him down on the bed with the table, and stamping on it," says my edition. But we live, thank God, in liberated times, and newer editions and productions of the play have reinserted the torture instrument.
In fact, Mark Lamos' production at ACT shoves it in pretty hard. His effort to make the play direct and relentless and modern turns Edward's mutinous lords and barons into militaristic, gay-bashing muscle boys who work out in a gym, and leads the director to put fierce, graphic group sex onstage. With mirrors. If this sounds indulgent, it is. Lamos has said somewhere that Edward II isn't a "gay-agenda play," and that homophobic elements in Marlowe's script need to be emphasized; but by emphasizing them ham-fistedly Lamos ruins the script. He turns it, in fact, into a gay-agenda play.
The show starts with a xenon-lit shadow play on a white scrim showing a funeral procession. Peter Gabriel plays over the theater's sound system. The scrim slides away, and we see Edward's coronation, queen and courtiers in attendance. But to contrast with the royal pomp we also see Edward's exiled boyfriend, Gaveston, having group sex in France. Throughout the show Lamos pays close attention to scene-setting and choreography, and at first you think this strik- ing split-screen effect bodes well for the production. "Here," you think, "is a director who knows what he's doing. Here's a bright, bold vision, offensive but smart. This'll be a great show." You settle into your seat. Then the actors open their mouths.
Lamos, along with ACT dramaturge Paul Walsh, has edited and modernized Marlowe's free verse almost to modern speech, but when a play is about kings and affairs of court you can't bleach out all the Elizabethanism. And the actors here seem to blow through their lines without noticing or caring how antiquated they sometimes sound. The ironic result is pomposity and overwrought speeches. Not only do you lose some of Marlowe's richest language (a "glozing head," becomes a "battered head," for example, which is a different thing), but the changes don't pay off in directness. Lamos has unmoored Edward and let it drift between centuries, leaving his actors no place to stand.
Edward's first act when he ascends the throne is to invite Gaveston home from exile. The barons at court are scandalized, because Gaveston is high-spirited, low-born, and gay. Even worse, he shows his affection in public. Edward turns his court into a leisurely, sybaritic Xanadu that offends the barons' Spartan sensibilities; they get angry, beat Gaveston, and convince the king to send him back to France. Edward is weaker, as king, than he'd thought he'd be. "I'll bandy with the barons and the earls," he says, "and either die or live with Gaveston." The rest of the play is a power struggle.
The barons and earls, unfortunately, wear leather pants and stalk around full of attitude, wooden and ambiguously gay. They line-read and look like the Village People. Real homophobia is subtler and less predictable than the behavior of any of these idiots, and Lamos would have had plenty of room to explore it, since the noblemen's motivations are so obscure. Do they hate Edward, hate homosexuals, resent Gaveston's access, or want power for themselves? Are they afraid of their own sexuality (probably not Marlowe's point, but worth exploring)? That's up to the director. But Lamos, trying to be dramatically concise, gives us a play about oafs vs. sissies.
Malcolm Gets (who played Richard in Caroline in the City) does an irritatingly whiny Edward in the first act, but improves in the second; he hits a stride that only sometimes lapses into misplaced jokiness or sentimentality. In fact, the second half of the play is more balanced overall: Actors don't shout so much; jarring 21st-century sets disappear, and the costumes look older, although their effect is more Mad Max than 13th century. Dan Snook's Mortimer also emerges as a more layered nobleman, at least in one scene, but just as he improves he goes into some obnoxious martial posing and feinting with Lightborn.
"The eroticism of violence" in male society is what Lamos wants to underscore in this show, but all he does, with his bold gestures, is drain Marlowe's play of energy. Imposing a 21st-century emphasis on Being Gay onto the first English play on the subject just doesn't work. It's self-conscious. (Marlowe took homosexuality for granted in a way that seems impossible now.) This Edward II has beautifully polished surfaces -- cool lights, excellent music, well-choreographed dance scenes -- but it's as empty inside as a Bret Easton Ellis novel. The sex and violence lose shock value after five minutes. We live in liberated times, thank God, but to me the whole point of spending them in San Francisco is to get past the clichés thrown up by this production.