Handing Off from Evil Puppets to 'Edward II' with David R. Gammons
David R. Gammons has been a force in the Boston theater scene for years; attentive audience members will see him credited with directing productions for various companies around the city. Case in point: A mere three weeks after the Feb. 4 end of the run of "Hand to God," the Demon Sock Puppet From Hell comedy Gammons directed for SpeakEasy Stage Company, the prolific director's next show, the rarely-seen Christopher Marlow play "Edward II," takes to the stage in production by Actors' Shakespeare Project that starts on Feb. 22 at the Charlestown Working Theater.
In case you've not seen nor heard of "Hand to God," it's a contemporary comedy by Robert Askins that delves uncomfortably deeply into issues of strict religiosity, sexual frustration, and adolescent acting out... oh, and also, possession by the devil, if you believe in that sort of thing. Both the comedy and evil living puppet have bite.
"Edward II," on the other hand, was written in the 1590s and is a historical drama about actual noblemen. Though some scholars debate it, to most who read the play with a modern eye -- and probably plenty whop read and saw the play back in the day -- it's pretty clear that the two male leads, Edward II and his close friend Gaveston, are lovers. Gammons, in his interview with EDGE, made no bones about which side of this debate he comes down on.
A Wikipedia excursion revealed interesting tidbits. "Gaveston" is based on Piers Gaveston, the 1st Earl of Cornwall, whose father, Arnaud de Gabaston, was a "vassal of the King of England," according to Wikipedia. In his play, Marlowe depicts a very keen Edward II bringing Gaveston back to the kingdom after having been exiled; this causes consternation among the nobles of the land, who threaten to depose Edward II. The stated concerns have to do with Gaveston being of ignoble birth; as Gammons notes below, however, the historical Gaveston was far from a commoner. The real controversy, the director -- who prepared his own edition of the Marlowe script for the ASP production -- is nothing less than the scandal of the love between the king and his faithful friend.
But let's allow Gammons to tell that tale in his own words...
EDGE: You've been working on two plays that seem very different, but might have more in common than one would think. Let's chat a little about the play you just directed for SpeakEasy Stage -- 'Hand to God.' Was this something you selected for SpeakEasy to produce? If so, why?
David R. Gammons: It certainly I something that I did pitch to Paul Daigneault because I had a sense -- even though I had not seen it during its Broadway run, but just from what I had heard -- that it would be a good fit for me. So I did pitch that to Paul, and he said, 'Oh, yeah! I've already been thinking about it, as has every other artistic director in Boston.' Then he agreed that it could be a god fit for me; so, it was a little bit of both, It was certainly at the top of my list if projects that I thought might be good, and Paul already very much had it on his radar.
EDGE: What do you mean when you say it's a 'good fit?' You have a special fondness for demonic hand puppets?
David R. Gammons: There are actually a couple of reasons why I was drawn to this particular play. I mean, in general I incline toward work with a little bit of edge, with a little bit of bite... I feel like, in fact, I've made a pretty good reputation for myself in Boston with certain productions that kind of push some of boundaries, and that was certainly one of the things about it, just from hearing about it and reading about it, it had gotten a lot of buzz. It's a little dark; it's also hilarious; it just seemed like the kind of thing that I would enjoy working on. I think of myself as having a somewhat perverse sense of humor and a bit of a dark side, in my creative work anyway, and that certainly drew me to it.
Just on a personal level, my own father is an Episcopal priest, and so I grew up in a very religious household right across the street from a church, and so that part of my upbringing and my background also made the play really resonate for me; certainly, the kind of questioning of faith and ideas about right and wrong, good and evil that the play toys with felt very present and relevant to me from my own childhood, and adulthood as well.
EDGE: So, what makes Christopher Marlowe's 'Edward II' a good fit for you?
David R. Gammons: You're quite right that in some ways it's a very different play, obvious separated by more than four hundred years in terms of when it was written. But again, it's a play, I think, that has a lot in it that challenges a societal norms. There's some real subversiveness, and that's exactly why the play was not seen on stage in three hundred years. After it sort of fell out of view in the 1500s it wasn't until the 20th century that it was staged again. A lot of that has to do, of course, with homophobia, and uncertainty about the perspective, or point of view, of the play. Who are the good guys? And who are the bad guys? It's a really interesting question with that play. It's a play that actually features as its central characters a homosexual couple; as a gay man, that's a pretty fascinating thing -- or, certainly, a radical thing for a play written in the 1590s. But even today, the way that those characters are portrayed is really kind of interesting and different.
EDGE: So was that something, again, that you had suggested to the Actors' Shakespeare Project? Or did they turn to you because they thought it might be a good fit?
David R. Gammons: That was definitely something that I pitched to them. I met with Allen Burrows, former artistic director [of ASP] last year, as I often have done with them. Because they have several of their non-Shakespeare titles over the year - in fact, this is my sixth show with ASP as a director, and only tow of them were by Shakespeare - I've had a good track record with the company with material that was not Shakespearean. I love Marlowe; I did a production of 'Dr. Faustus' with the students at Suffolk University a couple of years ago; and I actually did a production of 'Edward II' about 25 years ago wen I was in graduate school. It's a play I had a long [standing] interest in and history with, and I found it sort of surprising that ASP had never ventured into Marlowe, whom you would think most people would consider Shakespeare's most significant literary equivalent at the time.
Marlowe died so young -- [at the age of] 29 -- so the world will never know what he might have created if he had lived as long as Shakespeare. In fact, all of Marlowe's work that we have was completed just at the time that Shakespeare was coming into his own as a playwright. Also, interestingly, a lot of recent scholarship has pointed to the [possibility of] collaboration between Marlowe and Shakespeare, particularly on the 'Henry VI' plays.
EDGE: I read about that. Oxford University Press just published a new edition in which they credit Marlowe as co-author of all of the 'Henry VI' plays, Parts 1, 2, and 3.
David R. Gammons: That sort of made it feel all the more topical and relevant, to have the company potentially explore a Marlowe [play]. So, yes, I pitched the play to Allen as a possibility, and I gave him a short list that included a Greek play, and an Elizabethan play, and a Shakespeare play, and a much more contemporary play - but 'Edward' was the one that really resonated for the company.
I didn't know at the time that they were already considering several Shakespearean heavy hitters for the season. In fact, it's an all-star at ASP [this season], with 'Hamlet,' 'The Tempest,' and 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.' You certainly don't get any bigger than that in terms of the Shakespeare [canon]. It was interesting for them to locate this Marlow play, which is rarely seen, within the arc of that season where they're revisiting some of Shakespeare's greatest plays, plays that had, of course, already been done previously by ASP in earlier seasons. It was really interesting to be working on a production [of a play] that not a lot of people know, but that's not Shakespeare and has been given a really interesting relationship to other, much more familiar titles [within ASPs current season].
EDGE: So you're coming back to the play 25 years after having directed it before -- do you find that you have a different perspective now on 'Edward II' than you had before? Does the play have a different meaning for you now?
David R. Gammons: It does. It's interesting to see the ways in which some of my responses as a much younger man still hold true, and in a certain way it's reassuring about the arc of my own fascination, and proclivities, and interests. But by returning to it, I'm offered an opportunity to dig deeper into some things that, in its earlier incarnation when I was a just a student in graduate school, maybe went less explored. With that breadth of time in between, I can return to it with fresh eyes and say, 'Oh yeah -- I had this idea when we worked on it before that didn't come to fruition, and now, with a longer process and more lead time, I've been given a chance, dramaturgically, to think about what I want to do with it.'
Marlowe's play is a massive and sprawling canvas, a true Elizabethan history play with about forty characters. In grad school I had to trim that down, and a lot of the cutting I had done in that original cast of the play still really held true. I was proud of my much younger self and my ability to contain this massive play into something that I think an audience will respond to and a story that people can really follow and characters they can connect with.
EDGE: When it came to preparing your version of that text, were you just trimming and abridging? Or were you also switching scenes around and reassigning dialogue?
David R. Gammons: Oh, yeah. As I said, it's a play with about 40 characters, and to a modern audience that's a lot to try to keep track of, and in a modern production you simply can't have a cast play that many roles. When we decided we would be shooting for a cast size of about eight, I really made it my goal to not only have a cast of eight but also have eight characters so there wouldn't be any doubling -- which, of course, necessitated the elimination of a lot of characters -- smaller roles -- and also the compositing of [more minor] characters into [the eight remaining] characters. Lines got reassigned; whole scenes were cut; passages from all through the play are cut back.
I think that the style of the play really holds true. Edward's primary foe, for instance, is Mortimer, who not only is his political foe, but ultimately takes his queen... not that Edward has any more use for his queen, but Mortimer and Isabella engage in an affair and it is Mortimer who drives so much of the action in terms of the response to Gaveston, and the capture and imprisonment of Edward, and so forth. By taking characters and moments and lines from other parts of the play and forcing them into what Mortimer does, it actually makes that character more complex, forceful, powerful, and memorable, I think. It's no longer Mortimer the Elder and Mortimer the Younger and so forth; by compacting it that way, I think it gains a lot of clarity in form. You really see his point of view because it's been distilled into one voice, one body, one perspective and character. I think that audiences will find that the storytelling is a lot clearer, swifter and easier to follow.
EDGE: It seems like a fitting production for this moment in our political history, too, because of the level of political acrimony that this characters give voice to in this play, especially Mortimer and Lancaster. Lancaster has this great line where he's imagining Gaveston's dead body washing up on shore, and he says, 'To behold so sweet a sight as that, there's none here but would run his horse to death.' What is their problem with Gaveston? They keep calling him a 'peasant' -- is it just a matter of class snobbery? Is that narrative going to dovetail our current narrative of unworthy people taking things away from us?
David R. Gammons: That is certainly one of the significant threads through [the play], although to separate that form the inherent homophobia of the play would undermine the complexity of the response of the nobles to Edward and Gaveston. But certainly, absolutely, [the issue of] status and class is a major piece of it. And interestingly, that's mostly Marlow's invention. In real life, in English history, Gaveston was much more nobly born [than he's depicted as being in the play]. Marlowe decides as a theatrical device to make a lot of the response to Gaveston about the fact that he 'not fit' to be by the king's side. He's not noble enough. But what they're really objecting to, of course, is a homosexual relationship -- a love between two men. That disruption to the status quo, that disruption to the political order and societal order, is really what's at the heart of the play. Absolutely, both of those things are significant factors, but they are interwoven in complex ways.
EDGE: Homophobia also plays a huge part in our current political situation and the acrimony that we've seen in our society.
David R. Gammons: I am always interested in the political climate that we're in at any time, and the way in which it impacts how we're going to receive a play. I always say, 'Every play takes place in the present.' In the literal sense, in that you can only go and see a play in the moment, regardless of when it was written -- in this case, the 1590s -- or when it's set. Technically, this play takes place in the 1300s, but we're going to experience it in 2017, and there's absolutely no doubt that the turmoil of the past year has been on my mind in imagining the world of this play; it will be on the minds of the actors; and certainly [on the minds of] our audiences who come to see it. Those ideas about sexuality, status, and so forth; who's fit to rule, how do we maintain the status quo, what happens when we disrupt it -- those are all really powerful questions to be thinking about.
EDGE: And you point out that there's an ambiguity in this play in terms of who are the good guys, who are the bad guys, maybe nobody is really evil...
David R. Gammons: The ambiguity is about whether Edward is a bad king; is it his failing, is it his weakness, his inability to rile that makes him the bad guy; whereas Mortimer and Lancaster and the queen are ultimately trying to hold the kingdom together. You can see that potential argument, and I love that. The play does end when Edward meets his fate; Marlowe has absolutely constructed it so that he will meet his fate in the most cruel, violent, and terrible way -- the most humiliating way possible. One of the things we're working on for this production is a shift in perspective with regard to Edward's imprisonment and ultimate death, which I hope will be a statement in resistance to the violence and homophobia that are occurring in the play, and that actually turn that final moment on its head. I don't want to give away too much, because I want people to come see the production and draw their own conclusions and have their own experience -- but it's one of the things I really wrestled with, within the play.
"Edward II" runs Feb. 22 - March 19 at the Charlestown Working Theater in Charlestown. For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.actorsshakespeareproject.org