Edward II

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Edward II Presented by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier, October 7-November 9, 2008. Directed and adapted by Sean Graney. Scenic designer Todd Rosenthal. Costume designer Alison Stiple. Lighting designer Philip S. Rosenberg. Sound designer Michael Griggs. Wig and make-up designer Melissa Veal. Composer Kevin O'Donnell. Fight choreographer Matt Hawkins. With Jeffrey Carlson (Edward II), Scott Cummins (Mortimer the younger), Karen Aldridge (Queen Isabella), La Shawn Banks (Gaveston, Lightborn), Lea Coco (Kent), Kareem Bandealy (Bishop of Coventry, Earl of Arundel, Gurney), Kurt Ehrmann (Mortimer the elder, Matrevis), Zach Gray (Prince Edward), Erik Hellman (Spencer), John Lister (Bishop of Canterbury), and Chris Sullivan (Lancaster, Rice ap Howell).

Sean Graney's production of Edward H at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater was, simply put, one of the most exciting performances I've recently seen. Edited for a running time of around eighty minutes, the production focused on the shifting fortunes of Edward II and his rival, Mortimer. The action began with the return of the King's favorite, Gaveston, to England. The resumption of this relationship--and the tenor of it--was signaled very well with costume: although he arrived from France in nondescript dark clothing, Gaveston, once re-installed, made a flamboyant entrance in furs and a purple teddy (although Edward wears a suit and not a teddy, at one point he is shown leafing through a Details magazine). There was no attempt to leave the nature of their relationship ambiguous; they were lovers, and while their sexual desire for each other was openly depicted, it was never sensationalized. One reviewer objected that Graney "spoon-feeds sexuality to the audience;" I saw no evidence to support this judgment, unless showing affection between men counts as "spoon-feeding." Nearly immediately this relationship was checked, however, by the various factions whose power constrained Edward's own. The production made explicit that the court objected not to Gaveston the man, but to Gaveston the foreign-born commoner (with the possible exception of Lancaster and the Bishop, who did seem to disapprove of homosexuality as such). More problematic still was Edward's subordination of all royal concerns to the pursuit of private desire, as was evident both in his childish stomping and in his plaintive wish to parcel up England rather than banish Gaveston again: "so may I have some nook or corner left / To frolic with my dearest Gaveston." By the last act we saw Edward torn between his attachment to privacy and his attachment to kingship; in 5.1, he very reluctantly handed over his crown to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

At the beginning of the play, our sympathies were aligned with Mortimer and Isabella and against a petulant Edward and a frivolous Gaveston. In their first joint exercise of power, the couple humiliated the Bishop of Coventry by publicly stripping him of his robes; later, we saw Edward strike Isabella to the ground. Because of Jeffrey Carlson's superb acting, however, Edward's transformation from sulky tyrant to tragic--and abject--victim was completely compelling, and in the final moments of the play Edward achieved transcendence in his abasement. Karen Aldridge as Isabella was exceptional, too, although I was never quite clear about the director's vision of her shifting allegiances--was she always conspiring against Edward, or did she only reluctantly join with Mortimer after her neglect became too much to bear? When exactly did their adulterous relationship begin? One choice that did emerge quite clearly was Gaveston's surprising sensitivity to Isabella; at least twice he appeared to condemn Edward's harsh treatment of her.

Graney's most striking choice was to stage the play in the promenade style; as he explained in his director's note: "I thought that a play as unique as this, with its shifting point of view between protagonists, needed a unique staging . …