The author of The Eagle Has Two Heads, Jean Cocteau, was the David Lynch of his day. Both Lynch and Cocteau have garnered multi- media success. In the past year, Lynch has created movies, TV series, commercial, The Eagle Has Two Heads Directed by Jonathan Hamel At the Agassiz Theater Through November 17 comic strips, paintings and albums; Cocteau had a similarly diverse career. The French artist wrote newspaper columns, painted church murals, composed volumes of poetry, directed films and, of course, penned ,many plays. And like Lynch, Cocteau brought an intensely personal vision to his work, a vision which defies all labels. Cocteau has been called a Dadaist, surrealist and modernist, but in his work his quirky style can only Cocteauian.
The Eagle Has Two Heads was written in the fall of 1946, in part as a favor for Cocteau's lover and favorite leading man, Jean Marais. Marais asked for a part in which he did not speak in Act One, shed tears of joy in Act Two and fell backwards down stairs in Act Three. But Cocteau also chose to use the play to explore the mysterious drowning of King Ludwig II of Bavaria in 1886.
Working under wacky if self-imposed constraints, Cocteau might be expected to create contrived plot. And he does. The Eagle With Two Heads tells the story of a young queen in an unnamed Balkan kingdom who withdraws from the world in response to the assasination of her husband. Seen by no one, she leads a nomadic existence, sleeping in a different castle every night and avoiding all company. On the 10th anniversary of her husband's murder, Stanislas, a young anarchist poet who just happens to be the king's exact double, climbs up to her window to kill her. His mission is thwarted though, because he faints. And so begins the fanciful plot of mind games and political intrigue.
As with Lynch's Wild at Heart, The Eagle Has Two Heads is stuffed with symbolisn and thick with metaphors. The Queen predicts the events of the play with a deck of fortune-telling cards. Stanislas is also known as Azreal, or "angel of death." And there are fairly explicit allusions to, and indeed, reenactments of, such works as Hamlet. But this self-conscious symbolism need not be over- analyzed; it exists merely to provide texture.
The Eagle Has Two Heads also resembles Lynch's masterpiece, Twin Peaks, in its cast of eccentric and absorbing characters; a deaf-mute, a pathological count, and a crazy queen only head the list.
As the neurotic Queen, actress Nell benjamin carries the show. Her dramatic instincts are unerring. Benjamin displays an impressive mastery of her monologues; her voice is alternately cajoling, strident and self-mocking. Her striking stage movement assures her dramatic dominance.
Chris Hull, as Stanislas, effectively expresses silent anguish in the first act, but the trouble starts when he opens his mouth. He cannot rival Benjamin's stage presence. This is partly due to his poor elocution--he has a tendency to rush or mumble his words. Director Jonathan Hamel only exacerbates the problem by having Hull deliver many lines while facing upstage. To be fair, Hull's performance is not awful, but it is not as compelling as his outlandish character demands.
The Queen's blue-blooded servants, played by Kelly matthews and Tom Chick, function as narrators for Cocteau's brand of Shakespearean prologue; they provide important information at the beginning of each of the first two acts. Although Matthews and Chick allow the opening scene to drag unnecessarily, they become more comfortable with their characters in the middle of the play. Then matthews' prissy, huffy countess and Chick's obsequious, inspid duke become enjoyable to watch.
Hamel's direction is skillful. Aside from occasionally awkward and distracting blocking, his staging is fluid. He trusts the script enough to allow actors to remain still on stage, letting the power of Cocteau's ideas hold our interest. Hamel should also receive the credit for an inspired set design, which beautifully highlights what Cocteau called the "false classicism" of this play set in the 19th century.
Hamel pays close attention to chosen details, such as the bowl of green apples and the secret door behind the King's portrait. The library is dominated by a banner of a two-headed eagle and a large staircase, and this scene nicely captures the gothic feeling of the play's fomenting intrigue. The Queen's bedroom is also perfect example of mood decorating, all dark blue curtains and mellow lighting.
The mendacious count in The Eagle Has Two Heads warns Stanislas that "We are not living in a fairy tale." As always, the count is lying. These character are living in a fairy tale, albeit it a twisted one. Just as Lynch perverts the myth pf small-town America, Cocteau turns the myth of European aristocracy on its head. This production is not perfect, but thanks to Benjamin's riveting performance, Hamel's subtle direction and some competent supporting actors, The Eagle Has Two Heads is compelling. And like any fairy tale or David Lynch movie, it is not easily forgotten.