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More Than All The World

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 10, 2016

Emily Stockdale and Grace Stockdale
Photo by Michael Kushner

Why should you love him, whom the world hates?

Because he loves me more than all the world.

From these words from Christopher Marlowe's late sixteenth century play about a pair of lovers who both happen to be men, writer/composer Erik Ransom has drawn inspiration for an ambitious, sprawling, and unruly new glam rock musical, More Than All The World, that opened last night at the Theater For The New City.

To tell the story, Ransom has provided a score, backed by an excellent eight-piece orchestra, that is full of soaring melodies and power numbers, more narrative than personal in their scope and generally well performed by the large cast. These serve to carry the story forward as we enter into the world of Marlowe's play. Ransom himself stars as King Edward II, a reluctant monarch and an actual historic figure who ruled England from 1307 until he was deposed 20 years later. His downfall, brokered by his wife and her followers, came about not so much because he was enmeshed in a homosexual love affair, but because that relationship was all-consuming and left little room for affairs of state.

Christopher Marlowe titled his play The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second. This would also be a good alternate title for the musical, focusing as it does on the poet-king who falls in love with the courtier Piers Gaveston (Michael Thomas Pugliese), and the consequences that follow when he ignores his royal duties. The two meet up when Edward's father, Edward I (Tony Perry), decides Gaveston would be a positive role model and a perfect companion for his son, just the person to draw him out of his solitude. Indeed he does, though not as the king intended.

Gaveston, at least in this telling, seems to be an honorable man, his love reciprocal and unmotivated by a thirst for personal gain. Yet Edward, who assumes the throne upon his father's death, foolishly keeps bestowing him with honors and titles, just the sort of thing to engender jealousy and anger among the members of the power-hungry court.

One of the more perturbed of these is Queen Isabella (Grace Stockdale), Edward's new wife. She wants her husband to pay attention to the running of the kingdom, and, as well, to pay her enough attention so that she can at least produce an heir from their politically-arranged marriage. Isabella and her co-conspirators manage twice to force Gaveston into exile. But when Edward keeps bringing him back, they finally resort to killing him, expecting that to finally pull the king back to his responsibilities.

If More Than All The World were to end with Gaveston's death and Edward's response to it, that would be more than sufficient to make for a complete and emotionally rewarding show, one that would take us back to the Edward's deep and abiding love for Gaveston (as the title suggests) and that would surely hit a deep nerve with the impact of his loss.

But there is more, as the musical continues to follow the outline of Marlowe's play. Edward soon finds solace in the arms of another man, Hugh Despenser (John Jeffords), who is far more ambitious and manipulative than Gaveston. It is Despenser's influence over Edward and his interference with court matters that lead to Edward's final downfall, imprisonment, and death.

Further complicating matters is a framing device involving Christopher Marlowe (Erik Ransom again) as a separate character who relates and participates in the performance of his tale of Edward and Gaveston for the benefit of his own companion, a male prostitute named Robin (played by John Jeffords). The head spins with all we are asked to keep straight as Marlowe and Robin jump in and out of the action of the play within their dual roles and as the overall focus shifts. In the first act, for instance, it is difficult to decide whether King Edward or Gaveston should have our attention. Then, in Act II, our eyes are glued on Isabella, as Grace Stockdale plays the woman nicknamed "the She-Wolf of France" with an icy fury that dominates.

Throughout, director Rachel Klein whips the 18-member company into a whirlwind of action, but varying acting styles and often highly stylized and eccentric British and French accents make for a shifting tone, bouncing between naturalism and an edginess that approaches surrealism. Ms. Klein is also responsible for the eye-popping costumes that draw on the glam rock era look made famous by the likes of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, with enough glitter and leather and lace to equip a sizeable entry in the Pride Parade.

Among the cast members not yet mentioned, Emily Stockdale, who plays Isabella's lady's maid; Katherine Pecevich as the Countess of Sandwich; and Hugh Hysell as the Earl of Lancaster are standouts. All three provide a sense of heightened comic outlandishness to their performances that would be at home in an antic production of one of Mozart's comic operas. Luis Villabon provides a real sting as the Archbishop of Canterbury and also doubles as dance captain and co-choreographer with Ms. Klein, keeping the cast in stylish motion in line with the music's glam rock roots.

Maybe we are meant to embrace the inconsistency of it all as part of the experience, but what unfortunately is nearly lost in the shuffle is the story of the star-crossed lovers Gaveston and Edward, a king who, like another King Edward to come many years later, would be willing to give up the throne for the person he loved.

More Than All The World
Through November 19
Theater For The New City, 155 First Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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