Every English schoolchild knows how Edward II met his end: a red-hot poker up the bum. This would not, on the face of it, seem an ideal inspiration for a ballet. But David Bintley of the Birmingham Royal Ballet (formerly the Royal Ballet’s London-based second company) clearly understood that a historical spectacle with sadistic overtones would pack ’em in. Bintley, once the Royal’s up-through-the-ranks wunderkind, is known here for milder works (two of them staged during the company’s September season at City Center); in Edward II he proudly shows his darker side. It’s not often one sees a pas de trois for a king, a queen, and the severed head of the king’s lover, encased in a bloody bag and palpably fake.
Balanchine once noted that it was impossible to convey the concept of sisters-in-law in ballet. It’s even harder to deal with political scheming. Bintley can’t show us the rise to power of the weakling king’s “favorite,” Piers Gaveston. He cuts right to the sex, firing up the plot—drawn from Christopher Marlowe’s 1593 hit play—so rapidly that you learn in the first 20 minutes just about all you need to know. The second act is fleshed out with a betrothal ball for Edward’s son and a long, long, tender duet in prison between the deposed, debilitated king and his leather-clad executioner—which adds a note of sado-masochistic eroticism to the grisly coup de grâce.
The theatrically effective opening, with black-cloaked monks and mourners laying Edward I to rest and crowning Edward II (Wolfgang Stollwitzer), is interrupted by Gaveston (Robert Parker). Within seconds, he and the king are rolling around on the floor together. Surly lords—resembling Star Trek‘s Klingons, with long dark curls and glittering black armor designed by Jasper Conran—look horrified and mutter behind their hands, as the oblivious pair plays with the orb and scepter and knocks the bishop’s miter off. (You can hardly believe this king ever ruled or rode into battle.) In the next scene Edward subjects his Julietish bride (Monica Zamora) to a very inventive pas de deux—the equivalent of rough sex, which she comes to enjoy. Jealous Gaveston breaks it up nastily.
So the heedless king and his boyfriend frolic with a merry band that might have escaped from Hair; lords stomp angrily about on a table to an appropriately menacing passage in John McCabe’s score; Queen Isabella turns into Lady Macbeth, takes Mortimer (former Ailey dancer Joseph Cipolla) as a lover, and joins his faction to depose her husband and anoint her son. Gaveston loses his head, and the Grim Reaper (a seminude muscle man powerfully danced by David Justin) stalks ominously through.
The company as a whole is impressive. Stollwitzer makes Edward convincingly degenerate and pathetic. Parker reveals his marvelous skills in Gaveston’s many bursts into jumps and spins. Zamora is lovely, and Toby Norman-Wright virile and creepy as the assassin. Bintley stages some powerful passages, well-planned dramatic moments, and intriguing effects (like an army of pole-vaulters—although it’s not clear what side they’re on). But to succeed as action, his Edward II recasts history as easy-to-read, two-dimensional images.
Some puppets, like those in the Awaji or Bunraku troupes of Japan, enthrall us by their ability to move like miniaturized Kabuki actors. As they sail about, their tiny hands clench and unfold, their eyebrows twitch. The movements of two visible puppeteers attest to the virtuosity involved in creating small-scale virtual reality. Big hands press handkerchiefs into tiny ones.
But contemporary puppetry more often constructs domains in which fantasy and surrealism run riot. Stowaways, by Compagnie Philippe Genty, one of the troupes presented during the biennial Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater, sails on a dream Genty once had. The subject condones—invites—illogic and promotes sudden transformations. The few puppets in Stowaways function as the intrusive visions of live performers. But the humans—Fabrizio Chiodetti, Sonia Enquin, Meredith Kitchen, and Stéphanie Taillandier—who emerge from the dreamer (Abel Perraudin) are by no means ordinary. Kitchen has no arms; her body and legs are encased in a fat suit. Enquin, wearing a little ruffled dress and a chirpy smile, appears to be legless; besides bouncing around, she can walk, teetering and with help, on the artificial limbs she carries in a suitcase. An eccentric woman in glasses (Enquin) dances spikily on pointe, while a mechanical kangaroo counts for her; seconds later, her seated silhouette is revealed as a cardboard cutout.
Perraudin acquires a double about eight inches high. Trying to reenter his tiny red house, the doll finds it filled with a live human head (Emma Scaife’s low wooden platform, erected on the Joyce stage, has trapdoors), and sets the house on fire. A larger version of this same puppet somehow loses his face and acquires an amorphous cottony one, which the performers huddle over, twisting and pulling. The man-doll vanishes, and in his place is a terrifying female puppet—bald, naked, and chalk-white—with a greedy mouth, big breasts, and rolls of fat. What the live performers actually do is pass this creature around, working her head with one inserted hand, and moving their bodies to make her springy legs and arms fly out and clutch them. What we see, in one of Stowaways‘ most brilliant scenes, is a dangerous pet attaching itself now to one person, now another. The puppet’s head gets stuck on the back of a bent-over human to create a macabre tango dancer, with its feet facing one way and its head another.
Later, the human beings reappear in sleek, fashionable black, and the environment turns on them, sucking them through holes in a silken sea. One of the women is attacked by pieces of a gigantic brain. Stowing away in a dreaming human has its perils.
Sometimes things get a bit too illogical. The man in the hat, blindfolded, can’t find the others for what seems like an improbably long time, especially since they’re prone to creeping up and holding a lit match to his groping hand. Sometimes you can see the gearing up for a transformation a little too obviously. You come away with memories of vivid moments rather than a meaningful whole. Yet those moments, and the atmosphere itself, are magic.