In the movie Braveheart, Patrick McGoohan plays silver-bearded, steely-eyed Edward “Longshanks.” A mere aside of his could kill — or a fit of anger, as when he heaves his son’s male lover out a castle window. That son becomes Edward II, the man who would not be king.
“No king of England has had such consistently bad press,” writes historian Peter Earle. “He seemed to justify contemporary suspicion that he was a changeling” (switched at birth by elves or fairies). When Edward II assumed the throne, he paid no heed to counselors, or even his subjects. He didn’t rule at all, in fact. He gave lands and titles freely to his friends and partied every night with dances, feasts, and masques. Although he fathered five children, Edward favored Piers de Gaveston, “my brother Perrot,” a Gascon knight who became, among other things, Earl of Cornwall. Extraordinarily generous, Edward emptied the kingdom’s coffers and enraged the earls.
The subtitle of Christopher Marlowe’s play defines its twin paths: “the Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death” of Edward II. The Medieval world had a rigid order: kings ruled by divine right and lineal descent; everyone else fell into prescribed places below. Young Edward’s gentle anarchy turned the kingdom into chaos. Ergo, the “troublesome” 20-year reign. But when the Earls, led by Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella, stage a coup d’etat, the king dies a “lamentable” and gruesome death in the dungeon of Berkeley Castle.
As his enemies slaughter loved ones and nations threaten England’s borders, Edward asks, “Was ever a king as overruled as I?”
Marlowe uses the story to spin British tradition on its ear: Edward II had neither the aptitude nor the desire to be king. But he was next in line — and “ruled” from 1307 to 1327. Maybe, Marlowe raises a treasonous question, monarchy shouldn’t be hereditary?
Director Richard Baird has done an impressive thing: he has staged this sweeping, historical epic in Diversionary Theatre’s relatively small space. A cast of 15, largest ever at the theater, replicates battles and pageantry. Without ever cramping the stage, scenes unfold fluently, from panel to panel like a Medieval tapestry. Howard Schmitt’s early 14th-century costumes complete the picture.
Ornate curtains drape the rear stage of Matt Scott’s spare set. Each becomes a potential entrance, be it clandestine lovers or earls with broadswords drawn.
The production also boasts a find: Ross Hellwig, graduate of the Old Globe/USD M.F.A. program, excels as Edward II.
He plunges the king into a monstrous wake-up call. He begins as the “light-brained” monarch cavorting with his “minion,” Gaveston. By Act IV, he’s heroic (his enemy, Mortimer, calls him “heavy-headed”). He demands his horse in battle and vows “in this bed of honor [to] die with fame.” Hellwig makes pathetically clear that Edward is always out of sync with the times.
Alexandra Grossi, a new face locally, gives Queen Isabella a sweeping arc as well. She begins as Edward’s innocent, devoted young bride from France. In time she hardens and her eyes “turn to steel” (caked make-up and dark lipstick, a bit overdone, make her look like something from a wax museum). Grossi effectively blurs the queen’s loyalties: are they to the upstart Mortimer (John Polak), or to her son, the future Edward III? Maybe both. Or maybe she’s waiting to see where fortune’s wheel drops them off next.
Not everyone in the cast speaks trippingly off the tongue. But a majority do, and they give Marlowe’s “mighty lines” a good reading in this capable staging of a rarely seen play.
A bipolar production at Moonlight. In The Marvelous Wonderettes, the performances are as strong as the story is feeble. Roger Bean’s jukebox musical performs songs from the late ’50s and late ’60s. You won’t hear Chuck Berry, Gary U.S. Bonds, or the Crows singing “Gee.” And the Bobby D. is Darin, not Dylan. Much like the score of Forever Plaid, the music relies on tight, four-part harmonics as the voices swoon and slalom through “Sincerely,” “Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight,” and “Mr. Sandman.”
The Marvelous Wonderettes, four young women who took third in the stage’s song-leading contest (“Take that, chess club!”), will entertain at Springfield High’s senior prom. They got the gig when the lead singer of the Crooning Crab Cakes, who were scheduled to perform, got caught smoking. Act I’s the prom (1958). Act II’s the ten-year reunion (1968), and the times, except for beehive hairdos, have a-changed.
The quartet is profoundly unprofessional. Relentless gossip fills the stage. The tactic swipes at the idea of a prom. You’d expect the seniors would want to dance and snuggle, and do both without crushing the corsage (no mean feat) and not hear pages and pages of trashing.
But when the quartet sings, they really sing at the Moonlight Amphitheatre.
In a program note, Bean said he wrote the part of Suzy for Bets Malone. It shows. She plays the squeaky-voiced, semi-ditzy teen with amazing detail. And when she does a combination of “Rescue Me” and “Respect” — in a blond ponytail and pregnant — she nails them. And her other numbers as well. As do Misty Cotton, Michaelia Leigh, and Natalie Storrs. Each has a medley in Act II, based on her characters troubles. And each shines. ■
Edward II, by Christopher Marlowe
Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, University Heights
Directed by Richard Baird; cast: Ross Hellwig, John Polak, Alexandra Grossi, Dangerfield G. Moore, Steven Jensen, Noah Longton, Jim “Doc” Coates, Amber Bonasso, John Tessmer, Steve Smith, Ronnie Larsen, Max Macke, Jeff Anthony Miller, Reed Willard, Evan Kendig; scenic design, Matt Scott; lighting, Michelle Caron; costumes, Howard Schmitt; sound and music, Kevin Anthenill
Playing through October 2: Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m.
The Marvelous Wonderettes, written by Roger Bean
Moonlight Amphitheatre, 1200 Vale terrace, Vista
Directed by Roger Bean; cast: Bets Malone, Misty Cotton, Michaelia Leigh, Natalie Storrs; costumes, Carlotta Malone; lighting, Christina L. Munich; sound, Chris Luessmann; choreography, Janet Miller
Playing through October 1; Thursday through Sunday at 7:30 p.m. 760-724-2110