EDWARD II * Written by Christopher Marlowe * Adapted by Garland Wright * Directed by Jesse Berger * Produced by Red Bull Theater at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, New York City, through January 13.

When gay theater students go searching through classical dramatic literature looking for some trace of their own existence, inevitably they latch onto Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II as a rare example of a famous playwright’s work whose main character is homosexual. Wow, here’s the true story of an actual king of England who was gay and who caused high-level turmoil by neglecting his nobly born French wife and their children for his untitled boyfriend, Gaveston! That the playwright himself was gay adds another frisson of excitement for budding homo-theater scholars. This impulse seems to be the driving force behind the current production of the play staged by Jesse Berger for the Red Bull Theater in New York.

The problem is that Edward II was no gay hero but a weak monarch whose self-indulgence led to his downfall. As Winston Wilde writes in Legacies of Love, his recently published study of same-sex couples throughout history, “Despite his excellent military training and record, Edward despised warfare and competition. He preferred thatching roofs, digging ditches, gambling, and carousing with common folk,” including Piers Gaveston, the orphaned son of a French knight. While Edward enjoyed the companionship of Gaveston, his wife Isabella (sometimes known as “the She-Wolf of France”) plotted against him with her lover Roger de Mortimer. They arranged to have Gaveston beheaded, to execute his successor as the king’s object of affection, and ultimately to dethrone the king and have him thrown into prison, where he was killed by the classically homophobic form of murder: a red-hot poker shoved up his ass. Marlowe’s play, which is not his best, boils this story down to a series of hyped-up, bloody power struggles that become rather numbingly repetitious. No one is a hero and virtually everybody is a villain of one flavor (spineless, petulant) or another (conniving, power-hungry). It’s sort of Dynasty meets Richard II (for which, Shakespeare acknowledged, Edward II was an inspiration). 

The late great queer filmmaker Derek Jarman characteristically fleshed out his 1992 screen adaptation of Marlowe’s play with tons of imagination and visual style. (He even invented an alternate “happy ending” in which Edward’s executioner kisses rather than kills him.) Alas, the Red Bull revival shares no such richness. Director Jesse Berger falls into all the traps that lie in waiting for a contemporary staging of Edward II. He goes overboard by gaying up the production with stereotyped queer signifiers. The show opens with Gaveston falling out of a club, techno music blasting, playing grab-ass with his leather-clad compadres. The roles of Edward and Gaveston are performed by two guys with Chelsea-boy buff bodies who can’t seem to keep their shirts on (Marc Vietor and Kenajuan Bentley). They do their big love scene completely nude (with not-very-convincing kissing) accompanied by Maria Callas singing “Casta diva.” Get the picture? Yes, we see. I kept looking at the blond cutie with the Hollywood haircut playing Spenser, who becomes Edward’s consort after Gaveston loses his head, and thinking, “How clichéd can you get? To play the young boyfriend, they hired an actor who looks just like Justin, the ingenue from Queer as Folk.” Then I realized it was Justin from Queer as Folk, Randy Harrison, giving his earnest, lightweight all to the part. The only actor in the cast who isn’t embarrassingly mediocre is Matthew Rauch as Mortimer, who eventually catches the chest-baring bug (does that make him a medieval metrosexual?).

Matthew Rauch (center) with Claire Lautier, Raum-Aron, and Lucas Hall in Edward II

The production uses a new adaptation of Marlowe’s play by Berger’s mentor, Garland Wright, the superb gay stage director who ran the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis for several years and died of lung cancer in 1998. Wright made magic with his productions of plays like Harry Kondoleon’s Anteroom, Eric Overmyer’s On the Verge, and Christopher Durang’s Sex and Longing. I couldn’t help wondering what Edward II might have looked like if he’d lived to direct it himself. 

The Advocate, posted online December 26, 2007 (see online version here)