The prolific duo of Lance Hewett and Bryan Williams have crafted us a brilliant, new, musical treasure in Edward the Second.
Adapted from the 1594 work of Shakespeare’s biggest contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, Edward the Second is one of the earliest English history plays. The story centers around King Edward’s unpopular association with his low-born friend, Gaveston. Their relationship is presumably homosexual,* and Edward’s father, the late king of England, had banished Gaveston from the kingdom with his dying breath.
Well the first thing Edward does once he is king is re-instate Gaveston, and that marks the first of several bad moves he will make to help alienate himself from his lords, who eventually rise up in arms to depose him.
What makes this show exciting to watch are the plethora of stunning transformations that the characters undergo. What makes it fun to listen to is William’s masterful score – a delightful medley of styles from throughout the ages – sung by a choir of top-notch professionals.
*It is interesting to note that our modern notions of sexuality (and specifically “homosexuality” in this case) had not yet been culturally established in the era from which this show comes. Clearly there are familiar issues here, but to label this show as being about the stigmatization of gayness would be overly simplistic.
Fair Warning: There are Spoilers Below.
(But don’t worry about it too much. You’ll still enjoy the performance. In fact, this study suggests we enjoy things more after they’re spoiled.)
Our first interaction with the show is a haunting little tune issuing forth from the darkened stage. Methinks I hear James Horner or Danny Elfman. But no, it’s just Williams, toying with our sensibilities. Soon the stage is alight and filled with wonderfully-dressed medieval characters. Someone needs to shake the hands of Amara Haaksman, Janet Goldberg, and Lance Hewett for the convincing mixture of details that transport us to what feels like a real-life Middle Earth.
Next, a lot of exposition is delivered rapidly in chorus, while all the characters are introduced. I found it a bit hard to synthesize everything that was happening, which can be worrying for an audience, but the show quickly smoothes out its pacing and we soon learn that the essential story elements are actually quite simple and easy to follow.
That work is done expertly by TJ Punchard, who shamelessly grabs hold of the entire show, sets it squarely on his muscular shoulders, and sings the crap out of his part before our eyes. It’s a really nice blend of theatrical techniques, since the audacity of such a staging befits his character perfectly, and allows us to see immediately (though perhaps subconsciously) why all the nobles of England might find him a bit annoying.
As a playwright myself, I usually shudder at the thought of writing parts for 11 and 14 year olds, but my expectations are thrown right out the window by the dual performances of Benjamin and Theodore Errig. They are fantastic actors, and cherubic singers, both. In fact one of the best scenes in the entire show, in terms of dramatic power and effective acting, exists in a exchange between just the two of them.
Benjamin does an inspiring job of invoking a kingly nobility for such a young actor, and I’d be lying if I said he didn’t drive me to tears before it was through.
A trio of witches played by Natalie Bird, Amanda Quinn Baumler, and Erin Clancy-Balsamo bring the creepy on real hard throughout the story, appearing shifty and evil in strange, magical ways. Williams gives them countless Andrews Sisters-esque close harmonies, and they sing more as the singular voice of “destiny” than as individual characters. They are one certain instance of amazing casting, as their voices blend together mellifluously.
Storywise, it was a bit of a let down to hear the three ladies discuss all sorts of fanciful and creative ways in which they claim they could kill a person, only to end up using a pillow, rather ungracefully, to smother their only victim.
When she’s not busy costuming, Amara Haaksman is breaking my heart onstage as Queen Isabella. When King Edward coldly rejects her, his own wife, her sadness becomes my sadness, and I’m compelled to chase that lout of a king off-stage and throttle him by the neck, demanding to know how he could be so cruel to someone so innocent! But, like many of the character arcs in this show, Haaksman is merely playing me.
King Edward, played by the hugely talented Justin Randolph, accuses the Queen of having an affair with his enemy, Mortimer, so often that, after a while, the very same Mortimer becomes her only friend and ally – and consequently, her lover. Haaksman takes us on a the journey of the fallen angel, as she and Mortimer conspire to kill the king.
Randolph’s arc is another fascinating one. His relationship with Gaveston is calculated from the start to annoy everyone, especially the audience. We come to think of King Edward as incapable and immature. But as time goes on, Randolph strips his character bare – layer by layer – until we see his true essence in the dungeon at the end. King Edward is by then a sad, defeated soul who only ever just wanted to love and be loved. Randolph shows us that his extreme misfortune has come about not so much from his personal failings as a king, than from the inevitability of his situation. It’s really sad. But so well done.
Speaking of well done, Alex Mace takes us with his role, Mortimer the usurper, for another roller-coaster ride of characterization. The dashing Mortimer, trailing period-accurate hair everywhere, is introduced as an uncompromising loyalist to the late king, even though he’s dead and there’s technically a new king on the throne. But he’s not so one-sided; turns out he actually is in love with Queen Isabella (just as King Edward suspects), and once the opportunity arises, he makes his daring move to secure power (which he needs to get the Queen) for himself. By the end, Mortimer is a twisted, villainous caricature of his former self, and Mace brings us to that conclusion with aplomb.
One performance sure to reduce you to a puddle of tears is delivered by the actress with gigantic blue eyes, Anna Price, playing Lady Margaret. Beginning the show as the picture of innocence, she gets arranged to marry the unpopular Gaveston, only to discover he’s a really great guy. Things are looking up for her happiness when – what else? – her new husband is murdered. Suddenly, Lady Margaret is singing about “lakes of blood” and calling to “imprison their wives!” Her dramatic turn to the dark side could easily be unbelievable, if it weren’t for Price’s deft ability onstage not just to sell the story, but to bring it fully to life.
The shiesty Bishop of Coventry, played by David Gautschy, gives us the closest thing to comic relief in this show, and his twisted mouth and rolling eyes are flawlessly on-point.
Isle of Shoals keeps casting Stephen Ryan in powerful roles, and for good reason. He brings a highly nuanced and utterly gripping performance to bear with his character, Edmund, the king’s uncle. Nicely understated, but deeply severe, we in the audience feel a palpable moment of “oh, shit!” when the king tells him to get lost. It’s all thanks to Ryan’s carefully constructed role that we understand that King Edward has officially crossed the line.
Ryan, as well as George Michael Ferrie, Jr. and Arthur Lundquist, do the show a great service by “setting them up,” so that the other actors can “knock ’em down,” so to speak. Another fine example can be found in Jacqueline Rosa, who plays Alais, Clerk of the Crown. She’s constantly reinforcing the central action of any scene she’s in, making her character stand out, even in silence.
Many of the show’s most intense moments occur off-focus. When things get rocky between the king and the queen, watch for what plays silently between Randolph and Haaksman. It’ll give you shivers. All kinds of great scorny sneers get exchanged between King Edward and Mortimer, and Paul Chamberlain never lets up: you learn to keep your eyes on him, especially when he’s not the focus. He’s up to all kinds of interesting, thoughtful reactions whenever he’s on stage.
Act I ends with a massive choral explosion, but the same verve is not matched when we return to Act II. In fact, the second act opens to a slow song about dreams which I believe is a risky move, on the part of the playwrights.
In general, I tend to steer away from anything to do with the notions of “sleep” or “dreams” in any venture that strives to be entertaining, for the reason that sleeping and dreaming is what we do when we are tired and/or spectacularly bored. Aside from some very careful, deliberate, and conscious applications, I don’t think it’s too helpful to get your audience into a dreamy or sleepy mood during your show, and the start of a second act is a particularly vulnerable point in the structure. With that said, the actors did manage to pull me back on board soon enough, but I don’t think that opening sequence did them many favors.
When you don’t notice the blocking and stage movement, that’s a good sign that it’s working correctly. When it stands out, you’ve got an issue. One such issue occurred during one of the show’s very few comedic moments, when a very young courier needs help reading a letter. The person to help him is awkwardly positioned on the opposite side of the stage, forcing the young actor to cross, then to cross back again to return where he was. And with the repetitive nature of the joke, he crosses several times.
The problem here is that humor is naturally time-sensitive, and any delay – even a fraction of a split-second – can deflate the comedy like a hole in a balloon.
One place the blocking was especially good was during the coronation of Prince Edward Jr., where all the characters are fit onstage in one way or another. His father, locked away in a dungeon, is effectively represented just below the dais on which his son is being crowned. So near, yet so far.
Williams shows us he can do anything by throwing in a little barbershop for good measure, and “Base, Leaden Earls” is clearly Motown-inspired. His splendid vocal harmonies (for which I commended him in That Lady From Maxims) make a comeback, most reminiscently done in a lovely duet between Mace and Haaksman, called “The Seduction.” The show’s thesis, “It lies not in our power to love or hate, for will in us is overruled by fate,” is sung to a tune that may well have been ripped clean from the pages of a Rogers & Hammerstein musical.
Among the catchier of tunes from the show are “Reconciliation,” “The Passionate Shepard,” and the Lullaby, “The Prince Who Could Not Sleep,” the latter being particularly haunting.
With an impressive diversity of casting, Hewett & Williams pull together children sopranos, womanly contraltos, booming man-sound, and everything in between to form an enchanting tapestry of musical and theatrical variety.
The full choral sound is rich as hell.
All in all, the show is rife with transformative journeys that are a joy to watch unfold, and the story is told with unmitigated grace and an abundance of style. Bravo to all who were involved!
Edward the Second is up for New York Innovative Theatre Awards, so after you see the show, don’t forget to cast your vote here!