Raw and relentless, fierce and fascinating, respectful to the original and also wildly original, this “promenade” production of Christopher Marlowe’s “Edward II” — most of the audience stands for the duration of the show, parted often by the performers who move among them — is a wildly intense and memorable experience, and the very epitome of Chicago-style acting at its high-voltage best.
Director Sean Graney’s condensed, physical, fast-paced approach here feels appropriate for Marlowe’s irreverent Elizabethan drama, which charts the violent descent of the effete, effeminate King Edward (Jeffrey Carlson), whose public affection for male, lower-class Gaveston (La Shawn Banks), infuriates the nobility and brings treasonous revolt lead by Mortimer (Scott Cummins).
As the passions of our own election time heat up, this story of unmitigated emotions in the political sphere seems most insightful, depicting as it does the tearing apart of a country through its leaders. Passions overflow right from the start — love and anger, betrayal and determination for revenge — and if there’s one downside to this show, it’s that it plays a single tonal note for the 85-minute running time. But what an extraordinary note! Clearly targeted to a younger crowd, this show feels more like a mixed martial arts battle than staid classical theater.
The performances are energetic and outstanding. Carlson initially is all petulance as the king torn between love and power, but he becomes a figure of true pathos. As his arch-enemy Mortimer, Cummins comes off as a noble front of ever-more base intentions — his claims to be serving his country feel increasingly false. As Gaveston, and then as Edward’s executioner Lightborn, Banks finds the right controlled flamboyance.
The list goes on — everyone here is excellent, right down to young Zach Gray as the prince who finally must find justice in the never-ending acts of violence.
The design work deserves praise, too. Alison Siple’s costumes mix various eras while remaining aesthetically consistent, and Philip Rosenberg’s lighting helps immensely in keeping focus on the key parts of the space, especially since the action happens all over.
Todd Rosenthal, who designed the set for “August: Osage County,” makes full use of the black box space. Benches can be used for audience members, but can also become platforms for the actors. A huge iron candelabra descends from the ceiling to form a swinging playing space of its own. A pile of gray, dilapidated chairs seems just like appropriate background, until the actors start climbing on the detritus.
And, most memorably, a modern bathroom in a corner serves as the place where one character after another is taken for execution — a curtain closed, a gun pulled from a lunchbox, a shot, and exposure of blood and corpse. It becomes a morbid routine.
The final violent sequence — the most brutal perhaps in all of theater — is staged with as much verisimilitude as possible, including nudity, and this time Graney keeps it center-stage, as close to the audience as possible. It’s a climactic topper for a show that frequently feels like it couldn’t get any more intense.
Following the hip-hop musical “Funk It Up About Nothin’,” Chicago Shakespeare is in full stride in its secondary theater, bringing vigorous, and decidedly youthful, creativity to classic content. “Funk It Up” is already traveling. “Edward II,” which takes the phrase “in-your-face” quite literally, deserves further exposure, too.