If the canon of Elizabethan drama is to be believed, English history is full of foolish kings. In Christopher Marlowe's Edward II - now running at Pawtucket's Burbage Theatre Company - the titular character's folly is that he would rather be loved than be king. This inclination leads him, fatally, to abuse the power of the crown to lavish political favors upon his lover, whose low birth would otherwise bar him from high office.
With its stellar performances and resourceful staging, this gutsy, vigorous production invites audiences to thrill at Edward's brashness even as we cringe at his excess. Edward's passion may be political folly, but it ignites a firestorm of betrayals and desire made palpable under Jeff Church's smart direction.
When the play begins, Gaveston (Catia) is in France, exiled there by Edward I (Andy Stigler) to end the "unnatural" relationship between him and his son, Edward II (Gabrielle McCauley). When Edward II inherits the throne after his father's death, he promptly reverses this exile and piles political titles upon Gaveston - a move that disturbs his court less because Gaveston is a man than because he is a commoner unqualified by birth for such positions. When a group of nobles, led by the formidable Mortimer (Alison Russo), resolve to curb Edward's immoderate passions, the king rebels and civil war ensues.
There's no clear hero here: Edward's admirable insistence on loving whom he chooses is undermined when his lavish emotions dictate his political choices, and Mortimer's admirable political savvy is deeply qualified by the inhuman - and ultimately shortsighted - choices it inspires. Whatever these characters lack in likability, however, McCauley and Russo make up for with their magnetic performances. McCauley's Edward II swaggers with delicious insolence before trembling with keen humility. And Russo's Mortimer seethes charisma as he moves, with calculated confidence, to secure his own political power.
McCauley and Russo are supported by a committed, convincing supporting cast. From the play's first scenes, its cast members reveal their characters' (often shifting) allegiances with resourcefulness and precision. Eyes shift, hands flutter anxiously or fall freely on the grips of swords, and voices dart and lower to convey the nuanced relationships between characters without slowing the play's brisk pace. These are polished performances - so well-considered as to seem instinctive - that paint the mercurial political landscape that will ultimately swallow Edward.
The play's staging and sound direction further conjure this unsettled environment. In the wall above Edward II's throne, there is a cut-out where, for much of the first act, Edward I lies perched, haunting his son with his silent disapproval. But the dead king doesn't stay there forever - and, with each changing of this otherworldly guard post, Church subtly invites audience members to recalibrate their relationship to the action unfolding before them. The musical choices - which include discordant violins, clips of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, and a dizzy string rendition of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" - heighten the play's sense of disorder caused by passion, of notes exceeding their measures.
These resourceful visual and audio cues amplify a fast-paced, often visceral production brought to unsettling life by an accomplished cast.
Burbage Theatre Co's Edward II runs through February 16th at 59 Blackstone Avenue, Pawtucket, RI. Tickets are $25 (general admission), $15 (students); preview performances are $15. High school students receive free admission for any performance that isn't sold out.
Tickets are available online at www.burbagetheatre.org. For more information, call 401-484-0355 or email email@example.com.
Photo Credit: Maggie Hall