At Rep Stage in Howard County, Bob Bartlett’s new play E2 certainly proves it can make a head-turning entrance. This bold and sensuous take on the oft-told tale of King Edward II unfolds against a techno-punk frieze of video lighting and color-form columns that turn even austere 14th century stone into a cushy setting for a Studio 54-style blowout.
That’s all very much the intention, of course. Director Joseph W. Ritsch has worked with playwright Bob Bartlett to use our own hedonistic trappings as the framework for Edward’s poignant downfall.
E2 paints the monarch as a man so far ahead of his time that he could hardly be expected to cope with his own.
How greatly you enjoy this world premiere, in short, will depend on what you think of reducing dusty tomes of history into a shiny Rubik’s Cube of pop psychology and identity politics.
Artists have been using Edward’s notorious friendship with his boyhood pal Piers de Gaveston to their own ends since at least 1592, when Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II first appeared on stage. In following centuries it became the basis for paintings, poems, ballets and histories—even skewing the characterization of Edward as seen in the Oscar-winning 1995 film Braveheart.
E2 is intent on correcting all the unchecked slanders against homosexuality raised by those past accounts (Derek Jarman’s 1991 film version of the Marlowe play being the notable exception). Bartlett paints young Edward as so indiscrete and euphoric about his love for Gaveston that his behavior emboldens his opponents and inflames a court intrigue worthy of any true “deep state.”
The play endorses the idea of Edward as a reluctant monarch, more interested in wandering minstrels and music in his palace than in manly hunting skills or chivalric events. He prefers delegating matters of governance to his prime minister and other subordinates, making rival barons fear his allegiance to the irresponsible Gaveston.
Focusing Edward’s life and whole 20-year reign on just his sexuality leaves gaps, however. It dismisses his religious education, his military experiences, and the whole geopolitical crisis over Scotland and Europe that necessitated his arranged marriage to Isabella of France.
The casting at Rep Stage is ideal in most regards, beginning with that central relationship between Edward and Gaveston.
Zack Powell brings classical training and experience to the role of the young king. He makes the intimate scenes with his lover feel unself-conscious and foolishly carefree, in defiance of convention and conformity. He engages our sympathy with his thirst for freedom, making the ironic point again that sometimes it’s the guy with all the power who has the least freedom of all.
Alejandro Ruiz as Piers de Gaveston is the more grounded character, expressing the fears and the emotions that propel his actions. It’s clear he is not meant as a dark or villainous figure in the story, though we’re given too little by the play to understand who he is. The portrayal rests entirely on Ruiz’ shoulders and he fills it with nuance and sympathy.
Queen Isabella has the most to fear from Gaveston in terms of rivalry, and she could be a more sympathetic figure overall. But her character is undercut at the start by being painted as unfaithful and manipulative. She is enjoying her own secret affair with the king’s prime minister. It doesn’t help matters that the play gives her no strong scenes exploring the crushing disappointments of her royal marriage.
Still, Dane Figueroa Edidi makes such an overpowering impression as Isabella that her fears do seem to come out of nowhere. Edidi worries about the safety of her children, at one point fretting over being torn between them and her husband. But it’s hard to know what her character really wants, even as she goes about plotting and scheming with her lover.
Robbie Gay plays the disloyal prime minister, Sir Roger Mortimer. He seems most moored in some historic truth, finding the greatest resonance in Bartlett’s often-poetic dialogue. Zach Rakotomaniraka as the young Prince Edward III also makes an indelible impression as the chipper but vulnerable heir apparent.
Congratulations again to Producing Artistic Director Joseph W. Ritsch for taking the talented crew at Rep Stage into these uncharted waters. Of special note this time around are the thrilling multimedia designs of Sarah Tundermann and scenic designs of Nathaniel Sinnott. Jenny Male’s expert fencing instruction also contributes to a grand night of live theater.
Free post-show discussions will be held November 3, 8 and 15, with a pre-show lecture prior to the 2 p.m. performance on November 16.
Running Time: About 110 minutes with no intermission.
E2 plays at Rep Stage through November 17, 2019 in the Studio Theatre of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College — 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia, MD. Order tickets here.