For its revival of Christopher Marlowe’s “Edward the Second,” Red Bull Theater uses a gaudy aesthetic similar to the one that made its 2005 remount of “The Revenger’s Tragedy” so grotesquely exciting. As before, violence, sex and power are vividly evoked, so we rarely see a lover without seeing him nude and we see exactly what torturers are hacking off a body. However, there is a crucial difference between the two productions: “Revenger’s Tragedy” was played for hellish laughs, while “Edward” is mirthlessly serious. In the absence of humor, the garishness just makes the show silly.
Director and Red Bull a.d. Jesse Berger said in a recent interview that he wants this production to induce horror. Marlowe — and the late Garland Wright, who adapted the script for a never-realized staging — certainly provide the opportunity.
When King Edward (Marc Vietor) refuses to banish his thuggish, low-born lover Gaveston (Kenajuan Bentley), the court responds with gruesome retaliation. The ensuing cycle of revenge is not only terrifying for its body count, but also for the rage it unleashes in every character. Eventually, the world slides off the rails, and blood lust is its only guiding principle.
But when emotions are already this heightened, it doesn’t take much for a director to make them ludicrous. Though Berger and his team create clever images, they’re so overwrought the show becomes a pageant. Scenes are as much about design choices as they are about anything happening in the script.
Take Edward’s dungeon imprisonment late in the second act. This is the moment when the king comprehends his culpability for the chaos around him, yet he refuses to release his anger. His speeches are complex and morally murky, and Vietor delivers them well, flitting between emotions as though each thought were fully possessing him.
The lily gets gilded, however, by the incessant, echoing sound of dripping water, which becomes a parody of dankness. Lighting designer Peter West closes one speech by focusing a spotlight around Vietor’s head, as though we might not understand his isolation. Elsewhere, Berger stages a scene change to show silhouetted bodies of actors literally leaping across the stage while they drag transparent curtains behind them. This is accompanied by Scott Killian’s bombastic original music.
Costumer Clint Ramos indulges his impulses by dressing everyone as if they’re in a sci-fi bondage version of an Elizabethan play. The clothes on Claire Lautier, as Edward’s spurned wife Isabella, are particularly egregious. Sheathed in a full-length black vinyl coat, with a matching chapeau pinned onto her wine-red hair, she suggests a dominatrix. In an emerald gown with a train as long as the stage, she looks like an art installation.
Usually, these overblown elements are stacked on top of each other, so that mood lighting caresses a metallic frock with shoulder pads, while the actor wearing it holds a stylized pose and bizarre sounds burst from the speakers. In a production this aggressively mannered, genuine terror hardly seems possible.
Even more frustrating, the provocation is usually unsurprising. By now, a small child brandishing a large gun is a cheap cliche for the legacy of violence, and it’s equally predictable to have the gay characters be the only ones who take off their clothes. Signposts like these tell us exactly how we’re supposed to react, but they only make it harder to engage.