by LINDSEY WILSON
In Shakespeare’s plays, all roles were originally played by men to much critical acclaim. If Marlowe had cornered the market on women-only productions, the success could have been much like the success the Queen’s Company is currently enjoying with Edward II. Powerful and vigorous yet sensual and sleek, this samurai-style reinvention of Christopher Marlowe’s little-performed play achieves the impossible: not only do we agree that all the women make fantastic and brutal warriors, but we wholeheartedly accept and understand the love that grips the king and his male subject enough to erupt in civil war.
The problems with Edward II as a script are many. Most scholars of drama will admit this, and therefore shy away in favor of Marlowe’s more famous works or turn instead to devising fresh avenues for Shakespeare’s old standbys. The Queen’s Company, recognized for their traditional all-female casting and innovative insights into design and performance style, embraces Edward II and fashions it into a stunning, alluring vision.
A large part of what makes this production so intriguing is its ability to mix classic drama with modern irreverence, while still maintaining a sense of its theme (here, a Japanese warrior-inspired set and costumes, brilliantly designed and carried out by Jeremy Woodward and Sarah Iams). It is not above including moments of contemporary allusion, but never does Edward step out of its bounds and cross into the land of disrespect.
In her director’s notes, Rebecca Patterson discusses the boundaries of love and acceptance, the prohibitive progression over time of love between classes, then race, and now to gender. She refers to this as “the lurking threat of love” that eventually topples laws and reforms mindsets, but along the way travels a horrific path. The fact that King Edward chooses to love both a peasant and a man instead of his ideally matched queen, Isabella, stirs within his men a rage they have yet to name: hate crime. Edward, in his hitherto unquestioned reign as king, blindly assumes that his beloved Gaveston will be accepted simply because he decrees it so. In that time, the King is never questioned. The hatred and murder that erupts is magnified in an even more intense and unique light with this all-female ensemble, for not only is their masculine illusion uncanny, but their more tender moments also possess a heightened quality that could only come from this casting choice.
Setting it with a samurai flair also works incredible magic on this archaic play. This theme allows all the actresses a larger sense of power, from their ballooned silhouettes to the swords they carry. The extraordinarily effective sound design by Ryan Rumery and sharp lighting design by Aaron Copp distribute a cutting atmosphere, often chilling a scene with sinister and ominous undertones. The quickness with which the scenes are shifted is especially biting.
What is astonishing about this production is that the cast appears so young and yet proves they are able to hold such a firm grasp on the language and suspense of Marlowe’s history play. Though all of the actresses bring electricity to the stage, it is reassuring that both Edward II and Gaveston embody their roles with all the passion and determination required to carry the show. Virginia Baeta as Edward is a revelation, bringing unexpected humor balanced with raw fear and devotion to her doomed King. Simply her presence onstage is enough to heighten the intensity of a scene, and when she is given moments to really let loose, she doesn’t disappoint. Likewise, Lauren Jill Ahrold brings boyish charm and a longing so lustful it hurts to Gaveston, emanating strong pride and protective love whenever around Edward. These two actresses seem as comfortable stepping into their roles as they do stepping into their trousers.
What the Queen’s Company has done is accepted a challenge, to breathe some life into what is traditionally a male play about power and politics in England. They succeed in every sense by enticing the passion and fervor from an unexpected love story with an unexpected method of staging it. This Edward II possesses a sleek elegance and hip edge not previously seen, a vision that explodes in a fire of texture, zeal, and lustrous images. Edward II is certainly not a boring history play anymore.