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The Group 20 players once again effectively demonstrated their mettle last week by presenting an entertaining and well-done performance in the face of a most formidable obstacle: the play itself was quite mediocre.
Henry Treece's Carnival King was an especially unhappy choice for the Theatre on the Green's opening number by contrast with the remainder of the 1957 bill of fare, which includes Moliere's Would-be Gentleman this week and next, and later Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac and Shaw's Man and Superman--all of which present a delightful and heady prospect indeed.
If Wellesley then has followed the practice of saving the best wine for the second course, its aperitif, Carnival King, is a doubly apt reminder that one must be careful about putting old wine in new bottles. The play, a new one by England's novelist-biographer of Dylan Thomas and King Arthur, Henry Treece, is a rather close reinterpretation of Marlowe's Edward II, minus Marlowe's sensitivity, depth, and clear focusing of the issues.
The original theme is that of the alternation of the conflict and the agreement of two Renaissance principles in the person of England's monarch--that the sovereign must observe justice and that friendship is superior to sexual love.
Treece muddles all the issues, but does his best to tell a good story, with all the required stabbings, sword fights, and assassinations. On his interpretation of Marlowe's theme and Holinshed's story, Edward is less the victim of his personality, his blindness to the faults of his favorites, his imbalance, his lack of aptitude for kingship. His downfall is more the result of the jealousies and frustrations of others; less the effect of his own weakness. Unlike Marlowe's Gaveston, Treece's favorite is not a plotter against the king--his dupe--striving to amuse him in order to divert him. Rather, the French knight is Edward's honest confidant, fighting for his good and ready to die for him.
Working as he did with a poor play, director Elliot Silverstein achieved some excellent results. The opening performance had some rough spots and could have taken some more rehearsing. Generally speaking, it was still a finely paced and directed presentation. In the title role, Fritz Weaver, appearing for the first time with Group 20, excellently portrayed the sensitive, idealistic, impassioned, and guilt-ridden young king, damned by indecision and out of joint with his century and his inherited occupation.
Sylvia Short, as Queen Isabella, sometime object of a faded emotion, gave one of the show's finest performances in her wistful role--despite her phony French accent. The latter, shared by Peter Donat in his interpretation of Piers Gaveston, is more forgiveable because it is called for in Treece's stage directions. But it is as historically anachronistic as it was poorly done.
The Lords ordainers all gave most adequate performances. Especially impressive were Thayer David as Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, and Robert Baines, as the treacherous Roger Mortimer.
Michael Lewis' performance as the Duke of Kent, Edward's brother, was well-done, of course. I do think he was a bit poorly cast for the part, for one cannot help comparing his huge frame and towering figure with the quite smaller proportions of his kingly brother and wondering about their parentage.
Taken as a whole, however, Group 20 has done a commendable job with a poor telling of a good story. If they do as well this week with an unquestioned classic, Moliere's all too rarely performed Bourgeois Gentilhomme, those who make the short trip to Wellesley may look forward to one of the high moments in this summer's theatre.
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