Willie LeVasseur (foreground) with Damian Houstonand Oscar Castillo in Edward II
(Photo © Peter Dressel)
Willie LeVasseur (foreground) with Damian Houston
and Oscar Castillo in Edward II
(Photo © Peter Dressel)
A curious note in the program for the Creative Mechanics Theatre Company's production of Bertolt Brecht's Edward II reads that the play "is not one of his more groundbreaking works, and certainly not one of his more beloved." Written early in Brecht's career, it came before his theorizations about Epic Theater and the alienation effect. While the program note goes on to state that Edward II is nevertheless a "glorious play," the above qualification is telling: This isn't one of Brecht's best efforts, especially not as imperfectly realized in this production.

Edward II was adapted by Brecht from Christopher Marlowe's play of the same title. It centers on the titular king, whose passionate love for a man named Gaveston turns a number of key political leaders against him and leads to civil war. Brecht keeps much of Marlowe's structure but changes a number of details, some of which are more important than others. For example, in Brecht's version Edward's chief opponent Mortimer is not a warrior by nature as he is in the Marlowe play; instead, he's a scholar who is called upon to present the argument in favor of the banishment of Gaveston from the royal court. In both plays, Mortimer is captured by Edward's army; he escapes from imprisonment in the Marlowe, but in the Brecht, Edward lets his enemy go, imagining him a man of words who might serve as a witness to Edward's triumph. This proves to be a deadly mistake when Mortimer unites with Edward's estranged queen, Anne, to depose the king.

Brecht has written a fairly straightforward tragedy. Given his focus on the common man in his later work, it's curious that he makes a member of royalty the hero of this play. It's true that he emphasizes the humbleness of Gaveston's beginnings; he's a butcher's son thrust almost unknowingly into the world of cut-throat politics. But ultimately, the play is about Edward, who becomes more sympathetic as it progresses. Brecht makes this change even more profound than in the Marlowe version by exploring the king's darker side in the early scenes of the play, including his misogynistic treatment of his wife and his use of treachery under the guise of a truce in order to gain victory. Edward is more actively noble toward the end of the play: We see him refusing to give up his crown, which he consents to do in Marlowe, and remaining resolute in a face-to-face confrontation with Mortimer.

For the play to work, it needs strong actors in both of its key roles. In the Creative Mechanics production, it only gets one. Frank Blocker is a fascinating Mortimer who approaches the problems he encounters in an almost detached, philosophical manner rather than with hot-blooded passion. This extends to Mortimer's interactions with Anne -- including a simulated sex scene -- which seem to be primarily about the exercise of power and the use of the queen for Mortimer's personal gain.

Unfortunately, Willie LeVasseur is woefully inept as Edward. In the early scenes, he indicates brash immaturity without providing any emotional grounding for Edward's actions. The king's love for Gaveston appears almost whimsical when it needs to be depicted as the most important thing in his life, for which he will risk all. LeVasseur is slightly better in the play's later scenes, when Edward is imprisoned, and at least hits his marks in his character's final confrontation with Mortimer. But his work never rises above adequacy and, for much of the play, doesn't even reach that level.

The same can be said of Janice Herndon (Queen Anne), who plays nearly everything on the surface and seems incapable of plumbing the tragic depths of her character. She also intones her lines without conveying their meaning. A much stronger impression is made by Noshir Dalal as Gaveston. The handsome actor looks the part of the pretty boy whom the king favors; his energy and passion are appropriate to his role, though some of his diction is rather sloppy. Joshua Marmer shows promise as the young prince Edward, who eventually ascends to his father's throne. Shannon Maddox is appallingly bad as the Earl of Lancaster, while John Dohrmann is only marginally better as the Archbishop of Winchester.

Avi Glickstein gives a solid performance as Kent, brother to King Edward. Interestingly, director Gabriel Shanks makes him the one who physically kills Gaveston; in Brecht's script, that action is performed by a character named James, not seen in this production. This results in making Kent more unsympathetic, even after he switches allegiance back to his brother.

Shanks has set the play's action in the near future, indicated primarily by modern dress and the use of guns rather than swords. But he does not overemphasize this conceit, instead allowing the play itself to raise issues of power and responsibility, the cost of perpetuating war, the inevitability of corruption, and the possibility of redemption. Although Edward II is generally considered to be one of Brecht's minor plays, it still has relevance. Too bad this production often fails to make that clear.