Even the reveals prove revealing at the Marlowe rep. Shakespeare Theatre’s woody new Sidney Harmon Hall is a blank slate as the audience enters for both Tamburlaine and Edward II, the stage a naked expanse of black flooring, broad, deep, and lofty enough to seem ceilingless. No proscenium arch frames it, no curtain hangs to camouflage a set designer’s craft, no scrap of furniture suggests an era or location.
So the directors must begin by illuminating not just their plays but their playhouse. In Tamburlaine, Michael Kahn immediately draws the eye upward to four huge ornamental disks that are thunderingly revealed to be drums—a ceremonial start for a tale of medieval conquest and a vibrant way to show off the new house. Gale Edwards, in a staging of Edward II that almost aches to be called Angels in Brittania: A Gay Fantasia on Elizabethan Themes, trains her first spotlight on solitary, diminutive Edward, then materializes his father’s casket and a stageful of mourners behind him, creating a striking initial image of a man apart.
That Kahn’s Tamburlaine will thereafter traffic in epic gesture, and Edwards’ Edward in tragic intimacy, is clear enough in those initial moments to frame the company’s approach to Christopher Marlowe, a rock star of the Elizabethan age. The playwright died at 29, but not before he’d startled London with flashy pageantry, spent a few years making heroes of literary and historical outcasts, and gone out with a blistering theatrical blast at establishment insensitivity.
Tamburlaine and Edward II were his first and last plays respectively, written just five years apart. The former offers spectacle, the latter poetry and a glimpse of genius, perhaps because Marlowe felt a stronger kinship with a king who loved a man than with a king who slaughtered thousands of them.
Wallace Acton plays Edward as a 1920s dandy, and if this ever-intelligent actor has done smarter work, D.C. hasn’t seen it. Graduating from kingly petulance to royal anguish as his nobles banish and then destroy his beloved French commoner Gaveston (Vayu O’Donnell), Acton’s Edward is a study in thwarted desire and willful self-destruction.
And he’s not alone in bringing classical weight to a story that might otherwise come across as an Elizabethan soap opera. It’s easy to see why O’Donnell’s hotheaded flirt would appeal to the king and enrage the court. Deanne Lorette proves fiery and calculating as Edward’s neglected Queen Isabella, Andrew Long implacable as Mortimer, his chief nemesis, Jay Whittaker persuasively conflicted as the king’s brother, and Michael Bunting feisty and unbowed as Edward’s adolescent son.
The director propels the show with a symphonic Jazz Age score by Karl Lundeberg and has designer Lee Savage conjure everything from a forest of votive candles to a glass-walled torture chamber at center stage, and whips up a campy gay bacchanal to frame Gaveston’s return to England, decked out in a gold cutaway with 8-foot angel’s wings—an image that will haunt Edward’s dreams when fortune turns bleak.
But amid so much crowd-pleasing spectacle, she and Acton never lose sight of the humanity of their royal protagonist, who is—kingly trappings notwithstanding—just a guy who listens more to his heart than to his head.
“Why should you love him whom the world hates so,” wonders Mortimer.
“Because,” replies the king, both defiantly and sadly, “he loves me more than all the world.”