In Your Face

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To be honest, I never expected Sean Graney, brazen directorial wunderkind, would ever be mentioned in the same sentence as Chicago Shakespeare Theater (CST).  I admire and respect CST a lot, and I really feel that its recent Tony Award for Best Regional Theater was richly deserved, particularly for its exceptional World’s Stage series.  But for this particular audience member, many of its recent productions (Terry Hands’ take on Hamlet, Cymbeline, even Troilus and Cressida or Passion, both of which bowled me over), despite how exceptionally done they were, always came off a little (or a lot, depending on the show)…uhmmm, stately, respectable, safely err…vanilla (I’m sure most of its 20,000 subscribers expected no less).  The relevance of its location on Navy Pier, both to its target audience and its artistic sensibility, has never been lost on me.  So I was curious, and a little apprehensive, to see how Graney’s balls out, hyperkinetic, theatrical boundary-expanding vision will play out in a bastion of, let’s be frank, theater traditionally done.  So I am delighted, no, ecstatic, to report that Graney’s sweat-inducing, riveting, jaw-dropping, tsunami-inducing, literally in your face, promenade production of Christopher Marlowe’s The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward II, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of of Proud Mortimer (whew- henceforth to be referred to as Edward II in this blog) is the must-see theatrical production of the fall season for everyone who loves theater served fiery hot and unsettling (and a very tight contender, together with Graney’s own theater company The Hypocrites‘ surprising take on Our Town, as my best play of the year).  Hopefully, through this marvelous production, a new demographic of theater goers who have avoided CST like the bubonic plague because of both the traditional Shakespeare perception and the Navy Pier association, will discover that classical works can be fresh, contemporary, and devastatingly brilliant. 

The promenade approach to staging a play is something that’s been getting some traction over the past several years.  It’s a very different approach to theater, something that has brought up many conflicted feelings  (in infamous New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood, for one) – it breaks down the “fourth wall”, which in more traditional productions keeps audience members at a distance, and heightens their participation, and thus their investment, in the performance.  I have seen Sean’s previous three promenade productions:  for Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychoses, he designated both raised and ground-level performance spaces in the Steppenwolf Garage theater where the audience can congregate around; for Maria Irene Fornes’s Mud, he placed the actors inside an aquarium of room height with the audience moving from one wall of the aquarium to another; for August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, he designed various tableaux around the Chopin Theater and the audiences moved from tableaux to tableaux.  Although all three productions were startling in their ability to cut the spatial boundaries of audience and actor, there was still some comforting distance to be had (especially with Miss Julie, you could hide behind someone’s back, who hopefully did not have a cute ass to distract you from that terrific play).  In Edward II, there is no place to hide.  The audience is right smack in the middle of the action – whether during a fight scene, Isabella’s hysterical monologue, or Edward’s torture by Matrevis and Gurney (and yes, I very nearly popped a nerve, in over-the-top gay-gasping, as the gorgeous and extremely talented Lea Coco, as the King’s brother, the Earl of Kent, played a scene inches from my heaving chest).  For audiences, it is both a nerve-wracking and hypnotic experience, an exhilarating ride with the gutsy actors as they lay their emotions bare inches from your face.   And it is an approach that I think feels so apt particularly for this material, since Edward II is a play about people making ignoble decisions as a response to how their emotional buttons were pushed.

Graney cuts much of Marlowe’s text but the themes of this production are so much clearer to me (although Chris Jones doesn’t seem to think so in his tepid review) than they were in the S-and-M-gay-porn-meets-Showgirls production that I saw in New York earlier this year from the hot off-Broadway group, Red Bull Theater, which used a similarly-abbreviated version by the late playwright and director Garland Wright.  Graney’s version removes any doubt that it is the British nobility’s homophobia and utter disgust at Edward’s relationship with the gayer-than-a-picnic-basket Galveston which causes the carnage.  There are also tantalizing hints of xenophobia (Galveston is French) and class conflict (Galveston is a commoner).  But that’s it (no discussions on the nature of leadership, on power and politics) - bigotry is the focus, and it is clearly laid out for audiences to buy into Marlowe’s world.

The cast is exceptional, and deserves garlands of kudos all around as they masterfully navigate the trickiness of the staging (they have to shoo people away from the performance space, and their spotlights, at times) and graciously withstand the pressure of having body parts and audible breathing invade their personal space as they’re getting ready to deliver their emotionally-intense monologues.  Jeffrey Carlson, who I was very impressed by when I saw him in his Broadway debut in the original production of Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, is an intriguing presence, both petulant and determined.  There is terrific, detailed, character work by Chicago actors Coco, Kurt Ehrmann, Erik Hellman, and Chris Sullivan.  But it is the lone female in the cast, the fantastic Karen Aldridge delivering one of the best performances of the year, who makes your spine tingle, your skin crawl, and your heart weep as Edward’s spurned Queen.  When she delivers her angry, howling, grieving monologue in the middle of the intimidating topsy-turvy debris pile, brilliantly put together by set designer Todd Rosenthal (who won a Tony for August:  Osage County‘s famous three story house) that anchors one corner of the theater, you say to yourself this is the definition of flawless.  It is a scene, and an actor, that rocks in a play that shakes Chicago theater to its core like a 8.9 magnitude earthquake.  If I haven’t made myself clear enough – run to buy tickets to Sean Graney’s production of Edward II, a play so unlike anything you may ever see again. 

For the faint of heart and stomach, and for those who have money to burn, there is an option to buy tickets for seats on the balcony, looking down on the production, for twenty dollars more.  To each his own, but I don’t think you’ll get the full impact of the experience if you’re up there.  Edward II runs till November 9 at the Chicago Shakespeare’s Upstairs Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave., Navy Pier.

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