Erik Ransom and Michael Thomas Pugliese in Ransom’s musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Edward II,” “More Than All the World,” at Theater for the New City through November 19. | MICHAEL KUSHNER PHOTOGRAPHY
Christopher Marlowe’s gutsy 1593 historical tragedy “Edward II,” which traces the spectacular demise of the English monarch following his scandalous love affairs with other men, is laced with intrigue, treachery, power grabs, murder, and man-on-man sex.
And who better to give this complex, ancient tale a much-needed makeover than Erik Ransom, the mastermind behind such brash queer extravaganzas as “Grindr The Opera” and “Coming: A Rock Musical of Biblical Proportions.” This insanely talented dynamo doesn’t just write the book, music, and lyrics for his shows — he stars in them as well.
The astoundingly ambitious “More Than All the World,” directed by Rachel Klein (who also choreographed), boasts a huge cast of 18 and an onstage orchestra of 10, skillfully led by Andy Peterson. Quite rare for an Off-Off-Broadway production.
Marlowe’s polarizing “Edward II” gets a fabulous musical makeover
The score, a pleasing pastiche of styles ranging from Medieval to contemporary pop, is terrific. As the show unfolded, other notable crowd-pleasers sprang to mind, like “Rent,” “The Rocky Horror Show,” and — dare I say it? — “Hamilton.”
Ransom has expertly distilled a vast amount of material, roughly spanning 30 years, into a cogent, absorbing narrative. It’s the dawn of the 14th century, and King Edward I (Tony Perry) tries to groom his son Edward (Ransom) for the throne by partnering him with a war strategist named Piers Gaveston (Michael Thomas Pugliese). But his sensitive son, more poet than politician, learns more than just military moves from the dashing young man. He falls deeply in love with Gaveston, beginning a rocky affair that would last for over a decade.
When Edward assumes the throne, he bestows on his lover the prestigious title of Earl of Cornwall. A gaggle of nobles, including the Earl of Lancaster (Hugh Hysell) and the Countess of Sandwich (a deliciously sinister Katherine Pecevich), become outraged and do everything in their power to destroy Gaveston. They are not sure what is worse — that their king is a shameless sodomite or that he has appointed a commoner to such an influential court position.
Naturally, Edward’s wife, Queen Isabella (Grace Stockdale), struggles with this peculiar arrangement. With no small amount of effort, she produces a much-needed son, the future King Edward III. After being banished twice, Gaveston is finally murdered. A distraught Edward finds comfort in the arms of another favorite, Hugh Despenser (John Jeffords), who upsets the royal court even more.
With the fate of the crown secured with an heir, Isabella plots to depose Despenser and her husband, who becomes locked in a dungeon and brutally slain. Thankfully, they chose to depict death by dagger instead of the red-hot iron poker that some historians believe was used to impale the king.
Not that Ransom is only concerned with compressing historical facts. He’s crafted a highly theatrical piece, elevated by Klein’s ingenious staging, which connects on an emotional level as well, thanks in part to a few strong performances.
If all this weren’t ambitious enough, Ransom has added a clever framing device, whereby the epic tale is narrated by Marlowe (also played by Ransom), as told to a male prostitute (Jeffords). Not only does this add a layer of psychological complexity, but it injects a dose of fantasy that amps up the drama and forgives any lapses in logic.
There is some real heat generated between Edward and Gaveston. The fact that model-handsome Pugliese wears attire that reveals a luscious, impossibly ripped torso surely adds to the appeal.
Ransom does a nice job of delineating the impetuous, foppish Edward and the even-keeled Marlowe, even with no costume or prop changes. His Edward convinces us why he must rule with his heart rather than his brain. Duty before desire? Not for this reluctant monarch.
Stockdale is a knockout as Queen Isabella, easily navigating an assortment of conflicting personas — neglected wife, sexual adventurer, power-hungry royal, and malicious she-wolf.
No less impressive are the neo-Medieval costumes, credited to Klein but surely influenced by Ransom himself.They’re a glorious mix of black leather, vinyl, neoprene, lace, fishnet, and feathers, accented with metal studs. Think Patricia Field if she were to run amok at the Leather Man on Christopher Street.
As expected at an early stage of such a formidable endeavor, there were technical glitches, rough transitions, and unnecessary repetitions. The sex scenes, consisting mostly of bodies writhing under sheets, come off more comically than they should. The running time of two hours and 45 minutes (including intermission) could be trimmed.
But what shines through is the acute desire to illuminate a lesser-known chapter in queer history. Many themes still ring true today: conflicts of class, demonizing minorities, homophobia, and staying true to yourself in the face of bigotry.
This unpolished yet insightful “More Than All the World” pulses with a raw, urgent intensity that is undeniable. Not bad for a work based on historical events from 700 years ago.
MORE THAN ALL THE WORLD | Lil Rascal Productions | Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, btwn. Ninth & 10th Sts. | Through Nov. 19: Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $18 at morethanalltheworld.com | Two hrs., 45 mins., with intermission