They say that love will conquer all but what happens when love gets in the way of the crown? A court turned against its king for forbidden love; a throne overturned in the face of adversity. The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre brings Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II to the stage as its penultimate show of the season. A tragic tale of love lost in the face of intolerance between church and state. Directed by Brad Norris, this evocative Shakespearean contemporary work showcases a king liberally abused and turned upon by his court, his queen, his own relations and all for the sake of his unconventional love.
Director Brad Norris conceptualizes the piece which is meant to take place in the 1300s during the reign of Edward II. Norris shifts the time of the play forward to England and France in 1936 right at the cusp of the Second World War He also creates a framing device for the piece with the notion of a cabaret playing at the “Black and White Milk Bar” in the exiles of France. Performers noted only as “society” provide an hour of pre-show entertainment singing songs of the period. Some are jaunty upbeat little ditties while others are more solemn and melancholic; both representing the constantly shifting moods of the play that is about to follow. The fluid flow of “pre-show” into the show, where Gaveston— a main character of the play— takes the microphone to sing his own number, is exceptional, truly tying the notion of the concept into the stage work. However, outside of the seamless lead-in, fails to uphold this connection and when the cabaret atmosphere returns at intermission and again for the post show entertainment it feels extraneous to the production on the whole.
While the reason for shifting the production to the 1930s is unclear and virtually otherwise unreferenced, Norris does succeed in outfitting the cast and the “societal pre-show performers” in period appropriate clothing. Varying in styles and selection the clothing for the women become a showcase of proper business attire in fancy skirts and matching jackets, save for the Queen who is always seen in an elegant dress. The men are outfitted in dapper pressed suits creating the air of aristocracy among them. King Edward’s suit is no fancier than any of the other suits, but it grounds his character all the more for it, making him relatable to the everyman in the audience.
At my performance, there were projection problems. While the accents were impressive, ranging from proper English to Irish, French and everything in-between it was often difficult to understand great portions of the text. When the characters were expressing heavy emotions like anger their words become garbled blasts of shouting. This occurred most often with Lord Warwick (Daniel Douek) and Lord Mortimer (John Wright) where the emotions were clearly present but the articulation was lacking. King Edward (Jonas David Grey) had the exact opposite problem, where moments of extreme sorrow or grief become uttered so softly that I couldn’t hear any of the text he spoke in those instances. The women also felll victim to speaking too softly, Queen Isabella (Madeline Long) and Lady Kent (Heather Johnston) had brilliant moments of intense text that, unfortunately, got lost because of how quietly they spoke.
Despite these quibbles, Edward II is exceptionally well-performed. Characters like Spencer (Matthew Payne) and Baldock (Cassandra Miller) add hints of humor in this darkbody drama. Payne’s overbearing Irish brogue distinguishes his character from the rest and Miller’s sultry language makes her stand out. Together when their characters join forces with King Edward, for a fleeting moment their powers seem unstoppable.
Playing young Prince Edward III, Jack Connors delivers a great deal of acting skill for a young performer who has just completed the eighth grade. Connors articulates the language well, and his bursts of anger are solid as the end of the play draws near. Lady Lancaster (Aladrian Wetzel) has the epitome of articulation in her speech. Every word that Wetzel speaks, be it in haste, anger, or close confidence with the other Barons is heard without exception. Her cool and collected presence upon the stage makes her character appear intimidating as a part of the four-strong force against Edward.
Lord Mortimer (John Wright) leads the group of usurpers, including Lord Warwick (Daniel Douek) and Lady Pembroke (Ashley Anna Kowalski.) Douek is a hot-blooded, ill-tempered revolutionary who causes a great deal of chaos for Edward and the nobles while Kowalski is the more level-headed one of the group. Wright’s approach to his rather vicious character is surprisingly good; embodying the cunning villainy of a knave gone sour. Despite his lack of diction he makes the character’s emotions quite clear with his forever bristly body language and his militant heel-turn every time he strides out of a scene.
Queen Isabella (Madeline Long) delivers one of the most impressive accents in the production. Her French sounds muddled, like a woman trying to adapt to her new surroundings and lose the accent of her home country. Long gives an exceptionally emotional performance, constantly hung with melancholy and sorrow, even when trying to rekindle the flame between her character and her husband. Displaying versatility in those dreary emotions, her eyes and posture alight with glee when Lady Kent (Heather Johnston) comes to visit her in France. Her interactions with Mortimer toe the line of forbidden love and intimacies, keeping the audience on their toes and guessing as to what exactly is the nature of their relationship.
Gaveston (Taylor Rieland) is short-lived in his appearances, returning from exile only to be banished again and again. Rieland brings a youthful nature to the character; an exuberant jubilance alights within him whenever he is with Edward. The choice to double this actor for a role later in the production is a confusing one, but he does it quite well. Rieland’s interactions with Edward II (Jonas David Grey) speak volumes of their forbidden love.
While the relationship both in history and in Marlowe’s work of Edward and Gaveston is unclear— were they sworn brothers, dear friends, or perhaps lovers it is unknown— the relationship that Grey and Rieland form is clearly that of deeply involved lovers. They make no qualms about trying to hide their love, the physical intimacy bringing a strong layer of intolerance to the forefront of the production. Both Grey and Rieland have such burning passion for one another, their eyes radiate the purest of love when they stare at one another, or speak longingly for the other.
Grey, as the title character, gives an exceptional performance. His moments of madness near the end of the show are truly harrowing and crumble out of him like the last hiss of a fire extinguished. His physicality is nothing short of expressive, his body language telling more of his emotions than his words ever do; a truly captivating strategy for such a complex character. Grey draws forth emotional complexities that make the character dynamic and interesting.
Spotlighters’ Edward II is a well-rounded production performed by an exceptional company who make this less-recognized work well-worth seeing. Don’t miss it!
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission. Pre-show entertainment starts one hour before curtain with post-show entertainment optional.
Edward II plays through June 22, 2014 at The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre— 817 North Saint Paul Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 752-1225, or purchase them online.