Sunday, October 12, 2008

Blog Exclusive Review: Edward II

Here is a review of Sean Graney's dynamic staging of Christopher Marlowe's Edward II at Chicago Shakespeare.

Director Sean Graney has already had an excellent fall with his exceptional staging of Brecht and Weill's The Threepenny Opera, which I sure hope you saw before the end of its run this weekend. Now, only a month later, comes his production of Edward II, by Shakespeare's contemporary Christopher Marlowe. This grisly tale of a king done in by his love for a man is not particularly subtle, but Graney's staging certainly packs a punch.

The staging is promenade style--the audience members stand and sit among the actors, who might pop up from anywhere at any moment. The audience is encouraged to move around to get their own perspectives on the action, with actors shooing them out of the way when necessary. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, but it ends up working remarkably well. Graney's inspiration doesn't end with the staging style--everything feels organic, every production decision thought out carefully. For most of the play I was not engaged emotionally--my main reaction was  "That is so cool!"  However, once the play slid into its frightening finale I found myself horrified, not wanting to watch but unable to turn away.

Edward II (Jeffrey Carlson, regal and irresistible) has fallen hard for Piers Gaveston (La Shawn Banks, worth losing a kingdom over) a Frenchman of common birth, to the point of ignoring his wife, Queen Isabella (Karen Aldridge, magnetic) and offering Gaveston any office in the kingdom that he desires. His nobles, led by the conniving Mortimer (the dangerous Scott Cummins) cannot accept this, and conspire to kill Gaveston and depose Edward. From then on, things get brutal, both in the story and in the production. The many acts of violence are not gorily explicit, but they are extremely disturbing and immediate--those with weak stomachs should not attend.

Graney uses a deeply cut version of the script that only runs about 85 minutes, but still manages to tell the story with impressive clarity. I hadn't read the script before attending, yet I always knew exactly what was going on--no mean feat for a play from the 1590's.

The production definitely stages for visceral impact. There isn't much soaring poetry to be found, and the actors work in broad strokes, sometimes bordering on the crude. Still, the staging is constantly surprising and exciting, and it's a real thrill to see an avant-garde off-loop director being given a Chicago Shakespeare sized budget and keeping his idiosyncratic vision.

While gallery tickets, keeping you at a relatively safe remove, are available, I can't imagine them being anywhere near as much fun as going promenade. Best of all, promenade tickets are only $20--and if you go to and enter the code MARLOWE, you can get them for only $5 on October 14 and 21. If you have the courage for dangerous, thrilling theatre, go. You won't regret it.

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