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'Edward III' cast keeps its cool
A "new" play by William Shakespeare doesn't come along every day, and that may be reason enough to catch a rather different staging -- free, informal, outdoors, with actors in street clothing -- of Edward III: The King and The Countess on the campus of Case Western Reserve University. Scholars and publishers (or at least some of them) have lately concluded that this play (or at least most of it) is an early Shakespeare work -- and it's hard to believe otherwise once you've heard the language. If it isn't the Bard, somebody pulled off a masterful forgery of his singular style.
In fact, a few lines are identical to dialogue in Measure for Measure, not written until a decade later. The play kicked around for several centuries without a clearly assigned authorship, and it's likely that the fourth act (not being done in Cleveland) was added by Christopher Marlowe.
It has been staged in recent years in Wales and California, but never until now east of the Mississippi. This clearly isn't Shakespeare at his mature best, but this reviewer wanted to see whether David Frydrychowski, the young director of the Cleveland production, would take the bait anyway. "Would you say this is one of Shakespeare's best plays?" Frydrychowski was asked. "Right now, of course!" he replied with tongue in cheek. "Right now" is while the 2-year-old Cleveland Shakespeare Festival, loosely linked with the university, is hoping to scare up an audience. He added, more accurately, "It's like finding a charcoal sketch that Picasso did when he was 12." (Well, maybe 18.)
King Edward III of England is preoccupied in this play with two matters: making war on France to gain control of Scotland and possibly switching wives. His passion is to wed the Countess of Salisbury, played with spirit by Erin Myers, but they'd both need to murder their current spouses. The countess is all for it, and eggs Edward on -- foreshadowing Lady Macbeth. When it finally occurs to Edward that he just isn't up to it, his change of heart is so abruptly contrived that it's probably the play's weakest element. Except for five agonizing seconds on opening night Friday when he blanked out on a line -- and it must have seemed like five hours to the poor man -- John Lynch gives a cogent and sufficiently regal performance as Edward.
"Sufficiently regal" is no easy job in everyday dress. We're accustomed to seeing Shakespeare's kings decked out in splendor, but Lynch has only a scarf hung over his dark T-shirt to signify royal status. It's a credit to his bearing that he's kingly nevertheless. It's the philosophy of this festival that performing in contemporary attire is truer to the practice of Shakespeare's day, and it certainly solves the problem of not having a costume budget. It does take some getting used to, but the festival's aim is to focus on Shakespeare's language. The venue for this staging is both a blessing and a curse, although the latter could easily be cured. The blessing is a cozy, grassy courtyard behind the Tudor-style Mather Memorial Building, with the Gothic charms of Harkness Chapel enclosing the space. The curse is the 30 air conditioners that hum relentlessly in the windows of the Mather building, taxing the audience as it strains to hear unamplified actors.
Pleas to the university to have the air conditioners turned off after 6:30p.m. -- when they aren't needed anyway -- have so far been ignored. Somebody in power at the university ought to issue an edict that sticks; the noise is a needless handicap to a worthy enterprise. One actress who stands out by sheer vocal power (and fine characterization, too) is Samantha Desz, who beats the air conditioners hands down. In the role of a French seaman (gender is ignored in this staging), Desz delivers a potent report of France's defeat in a naval battle -- and in it, the power and glory of Shakespeare seem unmistakable. As Desz gets to tell it: