Forbidden Love and Royalty: Dueling Themes in E2 at REP Stage
It's easy to empathize with the impulse that apparently gave rise to the creation of Bob Bartlett's play E2, now receiving its world premiere at Columbia's REP Stage. That company's Producing Artistic Director and the director of E2, Joseph W. Ritsch, recounts in a program note that the production found its genesis in discussions he and Bartlett had concerning "the possibilities of his re-imagining of [Christopher] Marlowe's historic play." As Ritsch points out, that story of the suppression of an English king's homosexual love affair "resonated in these modern times. We find ourselves in a country, a world, that historically threatens the rights of LGBTQ+ people." He noted that marriage equality is under constant legal threat. And while Ritsch can marry another man and has done so, "I still worry about he and I walking down the street hand in hand." He writes of wanting both to be seen and to be safe, and about how these two aspirations conflict in the world we inhabit. Ritsch is right, it's a real concern, and Ritsch is again right, it cries out for dramatic treatment.
And clearly, the story of a king who would, legally speaking, seem like the safest person in the land, but who nonetheless is slain, as is his lover, because their relationship is considered taboo, seems facially like a perfect vehicle to provide that treatment. But it simply isn't, or at least not without more work. There are too many complications unique to a royal situation, as this play cannot help showing. E2 exists in a kind of neverland, though the setting is described as "A Kingdom" and the time is denominated "The Present." For sure this is not the world of the historical 14th-century English King Edward II, but neither is it exactly the present, littered though it be with video games, cellphones, Twitter, and discos. This neverland is eternal and generic, and here, as in real life, monarchs who are seen to challenge conventionality may find themselves fatally insecure.
Royal powerlessness is hardly news, theatrically speaking. In fact it's so commonplace, it amounts to a trope. Whether we're talking the princess portrayed by Audrey Hepburn giving up the commoner portrayed by Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday or Princess Margaret being blocked from marrying Peter Townsend in The Crown, the talk that brings the royal up short always is delivered with a dose of realpolitik, and it always informs the royal listener that there are freedoms subjects may enjoy but monarchs or royals may not. We encounter a couple of such speeches in E2. And yes, the conventional thinking about love that necessitates these admonitions to lovesick royals is usually oppressive and wrong, but it intersects with ideas about monarchy that may not be so off-the-mark. To do their job well, monarchs must usually at least appear to live conventionally. And the state depends on monarchs to do their job well.
So in a play that its creators may perhaps have wanted to be about one issue, there are at least two. And as to the second issue, the slippery and paradoxical nature of monarchy, there are additional aspects. This is a play with a five-person cast, and, after we account for Edward (Zack Powell) and his "favorite," Piers de Gaveston (Alejandro Ruiz), we have three others who in varied ways raise the messiness of the cluttered concerns around royalty. There is Queen Isabella (Dane Figueroa Edidi) who is effectively estranged from her husband, but who at least claims she longs to be reconciled, something Edward has no interest in doing. For her pains, she receives the same lecture: you may wish you had a more fulfilling marriage, but since your marriage is a royal one, you have to suck it up. (Though you can have a discreetly independent love life if you wish.) There is a teenaged son also named Edward (Zach Rakotomaniraka) who considers the wreckage of his parents' marriage and seems to be considering not only where his sympathies should lie, but also whether he should be making a move to depose his father - not the kind of dilemma that crops up in commoners' families. And there is Sir Roger Mortimer, the prime minister (Robby Gay), whose game is often inscrutable, even in retrospect, but seems to consist of telling off Edward and Gaveston more in sorrow than in anger, sleeping with the Queen, and paving the way for the young prince to steal his dad's crown. More royal stuff than gay stuff in all of that. In short, the special circumstances of royalty are outshouting the tale of a love that needs to speak its name.
Which is not to say that there isn't lots of the forbidden love, starting with the tableau the audience will confront as it files in at the beginning, reproduced above: a blown-up portrait of the lovers confronting each other, while the crown glints on a pedestal before them, a perfect summary of the two different subjects the show actually is about. There are a lot of other such pictures in rear projection throughout the show, and this is a good moment to pay particular credit to Nathaniel Sinnott, the scenic designer, Conor Mulligan, the lighting designer, and Sarah Tundermann, the multimedia designer, whom I take to be jointly behind capturing and displaying these striking and provocative images. I was likewise dazzled by a fall of what seemed like blue rain around the lovers at one ecstatic moment. And on the score of visually ravishing spectacle, I should add that there is a scene in which fencing practice and training takes one's breath away, no doubt thanks to intimacy and fight director Jenny Male.
But the other comment I have to make about that fencing scene goes to what I ultimately found so frustrating about this show: I just could not discern the dramatic subtext. People besting each other with dangerous-looking implements and showing off is dramatic, but it's not engaging at a deeper level unless you understand what it means, and I didn't. I had that same problem almost from the beginning to the end with the characterization of the Queen. She must deal with her husband's increasingly publicly-known infidelities and his lack of sexual feeling for her, and with being pawed by a prime minister whom she does not appear to love, and being required to remain loyal to her faithless husband and loyal to her son (two possibly opposed allegiances). I would imagine that in real life a person in her situation could plausibly be numbed by what she has gone through, or could plausibly be withholding emotional displays lest she explode, or lest she betray her plans. But for much of the show the Queen gives too few reliable clues to provide us a working understanding of her inner emotional life. And this I don't think is a problem with the performer, but instead with the script. And to a lesser degree I'd say the same things about the characterization of Prince Edward; young Mr. Rakotomaniraka shows enormous promise as an actor, but I could not assemble a consistently working hypothesis about his character from the information the script provided.
Moreover, while we know from history, from Marlowe, and from the play itself what the ultimate fate of Edward and Gaveston will be, the how and the whodunnit are never very clear.
This is a world premiere, which reasonably can be construed as a statement that the play remains in development. I would urge playwright Bartlett to take advantage of that status to tighten the work, to make sure that at E2's next outing there will be no unintentional ambiguities and no wasted space. There looks to be a terrific play not too deeply buried in there, but it still needs some quarrying. The process will not be complete until the audience can look back at the end and discern in detail how these five characters interacted to reach the ends of their respective journeys.
Even in its current shape, this play demands an audience's attention, and certainly did receive it at the performance I attended. Even unrefined, it makes us care about what is happening, and about the characters - and I'm sure, about what their fates tell us about the problem that bothered Ritsch at the play's conception. That said, I think that in future development the play should embrace its unavoidable additional focus on the demands of monarchy. Properly managed, that focus can be exploited without losing the initial concern over the safety and security of unconventional love in a still-repressive age. Though the vantage-point of a story about royalty cannot provide a full overview of that concern, it can at least open up to audiences a useful and exemplary special case. (Most of us aren't royal like King Lear either, but his story serves, among much else, as an important cautionary tale about rashness.) As it develops, therefore, E2's future course should be most interesting to watch.
E2, by Bob Bartlett, directed by Joseph W. Ritsch, through November 17, presented by REP Stage at the Studio Theatre of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center, Howard Community Coillege, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, MD. Tickets $15-$40 at www.repstage.org or 443-518-1500. Pervasive sexual imagery, simulated sexual activity, realistic swordplay, other violence.
Photo Credit: Katie Simmons-Barth.