Cruel and Unusual

Cruel and Unusual

Brecht is ambitious, but this time Creative Mechanic lacks the chops

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a theater company in search of artistic gravitas must be in need of Brecht. Snide allusions to Jane Austen aside, the number of misguided, overwrought, and self-indulgent Brechtian assaults I have endured in a career of theatergoing has just increased by one, as I now count myself a survivor of the Creative Mechanic’s production of Brecht’s early work, “Edward II.”

To be fairer, this is a problematic play, structurally and textually, and so even attempting it is a daring act that deserves a level acknowledgement. Creative Mechanics should be saluted for its good intentions, despite the result. In an environment where companies are making choices to produce easily digestible fare—Keen Company’s uncharacteristically lackluster current production of Somerset Maugham’s superficial 1931 play “The Breadwinner” leaps to mind—a noble failure does more to add vitality to the contemporary theater than any number of pallid, if diverting, revivals.

Much more than in Brecht’s later, better-formed works, “Edward II” makes tremendous demands on actors and a director as it swings, at times almost wildly, between naturalism and pageantry; between the internal lives and public worlds of the characters. Short scenes are juxtaposed against long monologues, and the emotional, physical, and linguistic violence of the play requires a sustained level of intensity for both the actors and the audience that theater rarely demands.

Unfortunately, director Gabriel Shanks never manages to realize his concept. This is a case where no amount of program notes can compensate for what is not present on this stage. Shanks has conceived the play as a commentary on the corrupting nature of power and the almost unbearable cost an uncontrolled and egotistical ruler can unknowingly exact from his subjects. He has a point. Who in this time and place can watch someone being degraded by being washed in “gutter water” and not think of the brutally ignored victims of Hurricane Katrina who took on importance to the Bush administration only when they became a political issue?

Intellectual acuity, however, is not necessarily theatrical viability, and Shanks’ unfocused production is alternately frustrating and tedious throughout. His actors do not inhabit the characters; they intone the lines. No amount of stage violence, unfortunately laughably clumsy at times, can compensate for the production’s non-existent emotional center.

Boy-on-boy kissing ceased to be shocking years ago, and the antic girlishness of Edward at the beginning of the play never jibes with his more martial demeanor at the end. If this play is about a descent into depravity and insanity, we must watch Edward crumble as the result of his own arrogance and blindness. This never happens. Instead, Willie LeVasseur delivers a disjointed performance that goes from high point with no discernable consistency.

The entire evening is plagued in this manner. In virtually all his work, Brecht provides wonderfully juicy scene-chewing opportunities for actors, but it requires a director to have these make sense in a production context that creates one piece rather than a chaotic assemblage of dramatic outbursts. For the most part, the cast could hit the notes, but without coherent orchestration, the production falls apart and becomes more like a scene study class than an evening in the theater.

Why, for instance, has Frank Blocker been allowed to play the villain Mortimer as a closeted gay man, somewhere between Carson Kressley and Charles Nelson Reilly? Are we to interpret this latent homosexuality as the source of his rage against Edward?

Or, why should Jancie Herndon play Queen Anne like Joanna Gleason in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” only slightly more demented? How could Anne have ridden through battle for two days and arrive with nary a scuff on her Ferragamo pumps? Where is the director in guiding these performances, especially when these actors clearly have the technique and facility with the language to do more?

The production is ultimately so unclear that the audience just waits for it to be over—or for the appearance of actors like Matthew Trumbull who brings an intensity to the Abbot of Coventry that only casts into relief what is missing in most of the rest of the performances.

Brecht is not for the faint-hearted, nor for audiences who are unwilling to work, which is why it is so appealing for theater companies. That must be why there is a lot of Brecht on tap this season, from Broadway to off-off-Broadway. At least, then, there is hope that other productions can slow the grave-spinning this one must surely have induced in the playwright, who here has been as cruelly, if unintentionally, abused as his title character.