King crimson

Red Bull Theater takes a bloody stab at Marlowe's Edward the Second.

KISS OF DEATH Kenajuan Bentley, left, tempts Vietor’s King Edward.

KISS OF DEATH Kenajuan Bentley, left, tempts Vietor’s King Edward. Photograph: Brian Dilg

“It’s surprisingly violent,” says Jesse Berger of his Red Bull Theater production of Edward the Second, and he is determined to keep the surprise under wraps. Berger’s large cast has assembled in a midtown rehearsal space to run through the many fight scenes in Christopher Marlowe’s 1592 historical tragedy, and the room is littered with weaponry, from daggers to AK-47s. But when it comes time to practice one of the play’s key moments of brutality—the murder of Gaveston, King Edward’s male lover—Berger asks me to leave the room.

What could the director be hiding? The mind reels, and the stomach churns, to imagine what bodily horrors could exceed those in Red Bull’s last offering: 2005’s sensationally stylish The Revenger’s Tragedy, a splashy bloodbath whose grotesqueries included the squashing of an eyeball and the nailing of a tongue to the floor. “The Revenger’s Tragedy was basically satirical,” Berger notes. “The violence in Edward is just as graphically depicted, but it has a very different tone. I hope it’s less giggle-inducing and gasp-inducing and more horror-inducing about what real violence can do.”

Although Edward the Second is only its third production, Red Bull has already established itself as the most exciting classical-theater company in New York. Conceived by Berger, 37, in 2001, the troupe is named after the 17th-century London playhouse that was the first to reopen after the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660. (“I loved the idea of the rejuvenation of theatrical spirit that that implied,” the director says.) Its mandate is to give a modern spin to plays from the Jacobean era of English drama—works that tend toward outrageous depictions of sin, injustice and vengeance. (In addition to its full productions, Red Bull has sponsored a sporadic series of Revelation Readings: script-in-hand performances of rarely staged classical works, featuring such stars as Marisa Tomei, Lynn Redgrave and Amy Irving.)

Although Marlowe’s play was written during the reign of Elizabeth I, Berger sees it as a precursor to Jacobean concerns. “Sex, politics, power, ambition, nudity, blood: These are the things that drive this play,” he observes. “Lust—for power, for love, for flesh—drives people’s actions even at the top echelons of power. Their personal desires and ambitions affect all the people in the kingdom.” These themes are brought to the fore with special emphasis in the text that Red Bull is using for this production, the play’s first Off Broadway revival in decades: an adaptation by Berger’s late mentor, Garland Wright, that—like Derek Jarman’s 1991 film before it—emphasizes the specifically homophobic nature of Edward’s victimization. (Infamously, Edward’s murder involves sexual violation with a red-hot poker.)

“The play, in Garland’s version, does speak very directly to contemporary politics: to prejudice and bigotry and the need for equal rights,” Berger says. But the play is hardly a polemic for gay liberation. “In Marlowe’s day, I think the audience rooted for everybody and hated everybody. Marlowe was a great graphic novelist: It must have been a fun visceral thrill to watch Mortimer kill Edward and then get his comeuppance. This version is more ambiguous and complicated, but I hope audiences root for the homophobes as much as the homo-heroes, if you will.”

Indeed, one of the interesting things about Marlowe’s play is that its doomed title figure—unlike Shakespeare’s Richard II, another ineffectual king who is murdered in a dungeon—is not especially likable. “Everyone confuses Edward II with Richard II, but it isn’t the same character at all,” notes Marc Vietor, who plays Edward. “Like all of Marlowe’s antiheroes—Faustus, Barabas, Tamburlaine—Edward is an overreacher. He becomes obsessed with this man and thinks that by virtue of his divine, anointed rights as a king, he can get whatever he wants. He’s redeemed in the sense that anybody who is martyred in a horrible way is redeemed, but he doesn’t get that wonderful scene that Richard does in the prison, where he’s able to make us aware of his humanity in this great apotheosis.”

The darkness of Marlowe’s vision, Berger suggests, is what marks him as proto-Jacobean—and differentiates him from his most famous Elizabethan rival. “Jacobean plays have a more jagged sensibility than what I would call the humanistic plays of Shakespeare,” Berger says. “They have a more singular vision. Shakespeare has a kind of 360-degree view of the universe, and most of the Jacobean plays have a 180-degree or 90-degree slant—they’re looking at the world from a very specific angle. To me they feel more contemporary than Shakespeare. There’s less hope.”

Edward the Second is playing at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre.