PROVO — Classical theatre is full of stories of great men brought low by a tragic flaw. Edward II by Shakespeare’s contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, is no exception. With modern costuming, vibrant fight sequences, and break-neck pacing, An Other Theater Company directors Kailey Azure Green and Jessamyn Svensson breathe life into a little known play and shine a light on its contemporary relevance while avoiding the pitfalls of over-politicizing or conceptualizing the rather brilliant text. Edward II is a tragedy that feels fresh and worth examining, even after 400 years.
Marlowe begins his history with the crowning of King Edward II of England and a reunion with his exiled favorite, Gaveston, a cheeky courtier with whom he has fallen deeply in love. The production makes no fuss about the nature of their romantic relationship, showing it to be as passionate and ill thought-out as any other royal affair. However, it is clear from the start that this romance is an especial cause of ire for the king’s powerful enemies, the church, and his doting wife Isabelle. Soon factions rise up, bitter words are exchanged, and as the King’s sister mournfully prophesies to him, “My lord, I see your love to Gaveston will be the ruin of the realm and you,” and a country is plunged into war.
The cast of eight has a very busy time portraying what feels like a spin cycle of characters across ages and social classes. Brooke Wilkins, Claire Stucki, Sydnee Peronnet, and John Valdez must run breathlessly backstage to build and rebuild themselves physically and vocally. As the play progresses, the actors meld from wily lords to punk rock cutthroats, from pious priests to fussy fops. Among all these changes, Olivia Rae Casper manages to bring real complexity to Queen Isabelle, who in one moment seems to be genuinely pining for her wayward husband, and in the next plotting his death. Colton Orr has the difficult task of playing first the king’s lover and then his young son. This tracking unfortunately leaves both characters weakened, especially when Orr must switch between them. While I applaud the ensemble’s commitment to making each character distinctive, the actors seemed sometimes torn between maintaining a serious tone or leaning into comic moments of meta-theatricality and audience interaction. After all, out of necessity, the quick-changes became almost farcical in their speed, and the actors occasionally veered into over-the-top characterization in their battle to maintain distinctions. I wish the program did a better job of outlining the names of the roles each actor took on, as so many of their small roles brought a smile to my face.
Carter Walker as King Edward and Tyler Fox as his rival, Mortimer, are the only two cast members with the luxury of playing single characters. Each displays passion and clear intentions with their many difficult lines. Walker’s grief is palpable as he transforms from a careless king, fond of giving away titles like candy, to one wracked with grief as his losses mount. Though Fox seemed a little shaky on his memorization, he literally took my breath away when he took a flying leap toward me during a fight scene. I loved watching his physical deterioration as he reflected his character’s soul being slowly twisted by ambition and malice. There are no heroes in this story, and yet the cast firmly held my interest in seeing their characters go from bad to worse.
The production staff has done admirable work. A simple but effective scenic design by Taylor Jack Nelson is highlighted by a lovely full wall mural by Bryn Cury that gives a sense of color, life and action. Aaron Gubler’s lighting design is both subtle and very effective during some particularly vital moments. I love Kellan Connolly’s choice of Led Zeppelin throughout the production, though many moments lacked the volume that would have given them real power. Connolly gets it right with excellent hand-to-hand combat sequences that display the characters’ ferocious battle of wills. These fights show off some of the best closeup skills I’ve seen, and the actors execute them at full tilt without making me feel unsafe on their behalf. The directors handle Marlowe’s nonstop action well with utterly fluid scene changes. Those not overly comfortable with Elizabethan language may find the plot challenging to follow line by line, as a character are banished and recalled, or commit treason and then repent within moments, but I appreciated that there are no backward glances. The audience is expected to keep up linguistically, emotionally, and thematically.
Like Marlowe himself, An Other Theater Company doesn’t shy away from controversy, but does demure from simple answers. This production refuses to be a sentimental gay love story depicting the tragedy of a world set against true love. Nor does it avoid showing the horrific violence that gay men across history have incurred for choosing to express their love openly. Rather, Edward II tells the story of two men, flawed as all are flawed, who love as all love, and who suffer as all suffer who love in spite of the world’s hate. A pivotal confrontation between Mortimer and the king sums it up better than I can:
Mortimer: Why should you love him whom the world hates so?
King Edward: Because he loves me more than all the world.