Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Queering Marlowe

There's good news and bad news about Spotlighters Theatre's new production of Christopher Marlowe's Edward II.  The good news is the very fact that this Elizabethan tragedy, often read in college English courses but rarely produced, is on the stage in Baltimore.  Furthermore, Jonas David Grey's riveting performance as the doomed English king is one of the finest performances one will see in the local or any theater.

The bad news is the "adaptation" of the play by the same Mister Grey and the eccentric direction by Brad Norris.  Marlowe's play centers around the conflict between Edward and his courtiers, outraged that Edward has given too much power and too many privileges to his favorite, Gaveston.  Edward's alleged dereliction of duty and favoritism lead to his violent downfall.  Marlowe's script keeps the nature of this doting friendship ambiguous.  No such ambiguity in this adaptation, where the reign of Edward apparently consisted of nothing other than heavy petting with Gaveston in the throne room. 

Even odder is the decision to set the play in 1930's England, complete with little nightclub acts wherein formally costumed singers offer shaky renditions of 1930s pop hits before, during the intermission, and after the show.  The director argues in the program notes that this transition was perfectly justified by the parallel between Edward II's fall for reasons of love and the Duke of Windsor's fall because of "the woman I love."  But why in the 1930s do we keep hearing about English military campaigns in France?  In this historical drama we are obviously in the midst of the Hundred Years War and not in the midst of Neville Chamberlain bargaining away the Sudetenland.

Back to the good news: James David Grey's superb performance as the hapless king.  Edward II presents a challenge to any actor since this feckless, corrupt, and slothful monarch presents little that is attractive in his character.  His courtier opponents may be manipulating popular opposition and his eventual downfall out of their own violent ambitions, but his moral mediocrity is all his own.  Grey brings out the anguish of Edward as he loses his grip on power.  His riveting final scenes underscore the emotional complexity of a man who on the surface appears to be just another colorless politician undone by his own venality.  Grey miraculously manages to bring a certain regal grandeur to the disgraced king in his final moments of pathos.

The supporting cast is mixed in quality.  Standouts are Daniel Douek as Warwick and Madeline Long as Queen Isabella, steely opponents of the king who gladly bring Edward down with a dash of sadism.

Sympathetic Tribes

With its production of Nina Raine's Tribes, Everyman Theatre ventures into one of the least explored terrains of diversity: the world of people with disabilites.  Raine's play concerns the family conflict swirling over a deaf son who after a life of quiet resignation suddenly becomes a militant member of the deaf sign-language community and denounces his family for the infantilization to which they have---lovingly and unknowingly---subjected him.  Directed by Vincent Lancisi, the handsome production brings out the emotional depth of the family conflict and the political fractures within the deaf community.

At the center of the production is John Mc Ginty's dazzling performance as Billy, the deaf son who finally declares independence as he conducts his first romance and is introduced to the broader deaf community with its divisions between those who prefer to sign (considering it their own native language) and those ---like Billy---who have long survived on lip-reading and learning how to speak audially.  Lancisi's direction is especially adroit at evoking the internal world of the deaf through the use of unusual lighting effects to suggest internal states of mind.  Daniel Conway's set design and Ja Herzog's lighting design masterfully externalize the shifting mental moods of the protagonist.

The limits of the production are the limits of the play.  In its study of the isolation and anger of the deaf, the script at times sounds like an after-school special.  There is more than a bit of whimpering self-pity clogging the action.  The closing scene, where Billy's brother assures him that love conquers all, packs an emotional wallop---audience members were audibly weeping---but it feels meretricious.

Tribes is a moving exploration of a world and an anguish unknown to most of us.  It is another fine example of the extraordinary ensemble work of which Everyman has been capable this season in its new home.