Proud Graney’s production falls prey to sensory overload

Smoke and lights are the hallmark of Chicago theatrical heavyweight Sean Graney’s spectacle-laden new production of Edward II at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

By Tyler Warner

“But what are kings, when regiment is gone, but perfect shadows in a sunshine day?” So go the ruminations of King Edward II as he sits, a broken man, atop the rubble of a shattered kingdom, robbed of his crown because he loved someone outside the English court. Blood and tears are the fate that befalls Edward in this Elizabethan tragedy written by Christopher Marlowe. In The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward II, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer, Marlowe foresaw a future troubled by confused notions of power and sex.

Smoke and lights, in turn, are the hallmark of Chicago theatrical heavyweight Sean Graney’s spectacle-laden new production of Edward II at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. His directorial debut with the company, Graney’s adaptation of the play is terse, violent, and heavily stylized. He attempts an ambitious project, but one that shows too little respect for the play as a whole and sacrifices subtlety.

Sex looms large in Edward II. The troubles referenced by the play’s title begin just as Edward, played ably by Jeffrey Carlson, ascends to the throne and calls home Piers Gaveston (La Shawn Banks), who was banished from the kingdom by his father. Upon Gaveston’s arrival, it quickly becomes apparent that Gaveston and Edward are not just friends as the king lavishes all but the entire kingdom upon the Frenchman. The king’s preference for the unqualified and effeminate Gaveston over Queen Isabella (Karen Aldridge) and Lords Mortimer (Scott Cummins) and Lancaster (Chris Sullivan) sends the court into an uproar. Edward treads on everyone’s toes, but none more so than the church’s; he mockingly disrobes and imprisons the bishop of Coventry and ordains Gaveston. As the kingdom teeters on the edge of civil war, the lords, led by Mortimer, plot the assassination of Gaveston and removal of Edward from the throne. The play’s finest performance may come from Aldridge, whose queen makes a treacherous transition from initial loyalty to indignation and finally adultery and revenge as she is continually passed over in favor of Edward’s favorite.

Violence soon begets violence. At just 90 minutes long, this production of Edward II does not mince words. Graney has cut down the dialogue and turned up the action as Edward’s ill-begotten love and Mortimer’s lust for power uproot a kingdom. Allegiances are formed and broken as a cycle of revenge consumes most of the court.

Like Shakespeare, Marlowe was a master of innuendo, but Graney’s production seems to distrust the audience’s perspicacity. In his opening monologue, Gaveston cries out, “The sight of London to my exiled eyes is as Elysium to a new-come soul: Not that I love the city of the men, but that it harbors him I hold so dear.” Gaveston’s words sing with sexuality enough, but in the very next scene Graney dresses him in a white fur coat over strappy lingerie, as if to shove sexuality down the audience’s throats. While Marlowe slyly raises questions about Gaveston’s motives—is he in love, or thirsty for the power love can provide?—there is little ambiguity and depth to be seen in Graney’s rendition.

Both setting and wardrobe borrow from many centuries, but for the most part, the stage looks pulled from the ’70s cult-classic The Warriors. Painted in a post-apocalyptic gray, it is strewn with broken furniture and capped by an enormous Tudor-style chandelier. The costumes by Alison Siple are intriguing and beautiful but lack a certain coherence.

In perhaps his boldest move, Graney opts for a promenade-style staging, forcing the actors and audience members to intermingle physically on stage. A sort of extension of the Elizabethan theatrical convention of gallery seating, the promenade consciously rejects the fourth wall effect that has characterized most of modern drama. Actors jostle with the audience for position, even shooing them out of the way at times. Though such intimacy can cause awkward moments on stage, the promenade is engaging, exciting, and spontaneous.

At the play’s outset, a cast member addresses the audience. “Feel free to move about the stage. Change your perspective. We want this to be as vital for you as possible,” he says. Ultimately, however, it may be in this search for vitality that Edward II oversteps itself. Graney makes a strong case for the relevancy of Marlowe but he does so by spoon-feeding sexuality to the audience. Likewise, though the staging would seem to privilege accident and imagination, in this production, both are limited by an overemphasis on show. When no work is required of the audience other than standing aside as actors rush by, vitality borders on spectacle. And though Marlowe was no hater of the spectacular—the original staging of Doctor Faustus in 1589 was said to include devils covered in flames and fireworks and a gaping hell-mouth—if used too heavy-handedly, spectacle overpowers everything else.