Onstage at the Charlestown Working Theater, director David Gammons isn’t placing his actors in position for “Edward II” so much as he is superimposing scenes on top of one another. In one area, the king is idly watching TV with his lover while two nobles hatch a plot on a platform above him and Queen Isabella observes her husband from a distance.
White tiles, a toilet, and sink on one side and a shower on the other offer the feel of a gay bathhouse circa 1980, adding to the tension between public expectations versus private desires in this Actors’ Shakespeare Project production that runs from Feb. 22 to March 19.
“I really wanted to create some open-ended visual references that trigger different associations for different audiences,” Gammons says. Bathhouses were places where gay men took refuge in a world of homophobia, he says, while the costumes for the play reference an authoritarian elite eager for power.
“A new king has just ascended the throne, and the rules of the political game are up for grabs,” says Gammons. “It’s exhilarating and terrifying for these players.”
Written by Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare’s contemporary, the drama opens with newly crowned king Edward II calling for his exiled lover Gaveston to return from France. When he arrives, the king promptly honors him with titles and estates, and Gaveston spends the king’s money on lavish parties, clothes, and entertainment. The nobles resent Gaveston’s power and his closeness to the king and demand his banishment. Although the queen successfully argues for his return, she ultimately allies herself with nobles who are plotting not only Gaveston’s death but that of the king, too.
“I think Edward is an aesthete,” says Maurice Emmanuel Parent, who plays the monarch. “He loves beauty and art, and would prefer to enjoy life and watch a movie with his friend rather than wage war. Unfortunately, he lives during an era when waging war was a king’s primary responsibility.”
Written just before Marlowe’s death in 1593, “Edward II” placed a clear emphasis on the homosexual relationship between the king and Gaveston. Although many of Marlowe’s other plays were often produced in the ensuing years, “Edward II” was rarely seen before the mid-20th century.
“I think, like ‘Scottsboro Boys,’” says Parent, who just completed the encore run of that musical at SpeakEasy Stage, “the simple details can be disconcerting. In ‘Edward II,’ the moments of intimacy, the desire for love and partnership between two men may have made audiences uncomfortable.” (The production contains nudity and strong sexual content and is recommended for adults 18 and over.)
For Gammons, the parallel threads of homophobia and class snobbery run side by side in “Edward II.” The director, who edited Marlowe’s more than 30 speaking roles down to the eight actors he is using in this production, says condensing characters gives dimension and complexity to the ones who remain. For Jennie Israel, who plays Queen Isabella, the only woman in this story, that complexity has made her character both fun to play and a challenge.
“Historically, Isabella was a badass,” says Israel, who is usually cast in strong female roles. “But Marlowe’s Isabella is lost. For her, the marriage to Edward was real. She gave him a male heir, which was her job, after all, and now she’s faced with the fact that it’s all been a lie.”
Gammons says Isabella feels like she’s from a different time and place. “She is holding onto values that are now out of step with the current political climate,” he says. “Her struggle adds another layer to a story that explores a clash of politics, sexuality, and behavior.”
‘Freedom’ in three acts
“Wrestling with Freedom,” three one-act plays written and directed by Jacqui Parker, looks at two pivotal moments in African-American history and connects them to the present. In the first play, the audience is transported to the 18th century where they meet poet Phillis Wheatley and her friend Obour Tanner. The second play depicts Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and John Brown just before the raid on Harper’s Ferry. In the third play, set in 2020, a modern-day civil war is looming. “Wrestling with Freedom” runs Feb. 17-26 at Hibernian Hall in Roxbury. Tickets: www.Madison-park.org.
Zeitgeist goes to school
Elliot Norton Award-winning actress Maureen Adduci leads the cast of “Exit Strategy,” by Ike Holter, beginning performances Friday and running through March 11 at the Boston Center for the Arts Black Box. Zeitgeist Stage Company is presenting the dark comedy about a Chicago school scheduled to close and the desperate lengths to which the students and teachers go to save it. Tickets: www.bostontheatrescene.com.
Off to Broadway
Sandra Shipley, last seen at Gloucester Stage Company’s production of “Man in Snow,” has been cast in the Broadway revival of Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter,” opening March 10 with Kevin Kline and Kate Burton. Kelley Curran, who appeared in Bedlam’s “Twelfth Night” at Central Square Theater, is also in the ensemble.
Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project. At Charlestown Working Theater, 442 Bunker Hill St., Charlestown, Feb. 22-March 19. Tickets: $30-$50, 866-811-4111, www.actorsshakespeareproject.org.Terry Byrne can be reached at email@example.com.