When art depicts the pornographic, does it cease to be art? If pornography achieves artistic expression, does it cease to be pornography? What about W.H. Auden's rapturous paeans to buggery, or D.H. Lawrence's celebration of coitus, or that bawdy unknown ancient poet who wrote Satyricon, in which no perversion was left undepicted? What, indeed, about the lusty love metaphors of the Song of Solomon in the Bible? The question of art's relationship to propriety is at the heart of the current controversy in Congress over funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. While many in our contemporary world find censorship more obscene than pornography, the role of the taxpayers' dollars in supporting those on the margins of social acceptability is a legitimate question. To put your own opinions to the test, Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre is currently offering a raunchy interpretation of Christopher Marlowe's 1593 opus Edward II.

Marlowe was born in 1564 (in the same year as Shakespeare), and after a notorious life as enfant terrible, the second greatest poet and playwright of his time, spy for Elizabeth I and infamous atheistic homosexual, his life was prematurely terminated at the age of 29 in a tavern brawl. Marlowe's tragedy dissects the misplaced passions of a king, whose obsession for his homosexual lover, Piers Gaveston, transcended his obligations to his court, his people, his queen. The central, timely question the play poses is whether the personal pursuit of happiness can or should be tolerated by a state whose majority is repelled by the unpleasant choices of the individual. Does this seem familiar?

It should be immediately stated that Planet Earth's production of Edward II is nowhere near pornographic. It does feature a rather frank physicality and some minimal nudity, and it does simulate various elements of bisexual foreplay. The most sensational moment is one of violence in a play that arguably revels in it. Toward the end, in revenge for the murder of Gaveston, Edward and his new lover, Spencer, incapacitate a guard. Using a carpet knife, the actors simulate cutting off his penis and stuffing it in his mouth. The gruesome moment is every bit as repulsive as the creators mean it to be.

The final image is of Edward being skewered by the beautiful, lumbering Angel of Death on a gigantic sword: a royal pain in the butt.

As Edward, David Akin (who also directed) is largely inaudible, but otherwise suggests an obsessed, if petulant, kingliness. D.W. McKim, filling in for the ailing Jeffrey Hartgraves, is a serviceable Mortimer, where something rather more is required. Rick Tobin is a sensual, wispy Spencer, if somewhat inarticulate. Mollie Kellogg Cirino displays her familiar dramatic flair as Queen Isabel, but the performance has more intensity than clarity. James Panozzo is a commanding presence as the mysterious Angel of Death, in whom Edward foresees his fated executioner. As the pivotal Gaveston, Joey Michitsch is the only actor who speaks the poetry with intentions and nuance that convey both meaning and feeling. He engages our sympathy by bringing his character to life with simplicity and grace. David Akin has conceived a wildly theatrical vision of Edward II that is less an adaptation of Marlowe's tragedy than a series of striking tableaux vivants. Often Akin uses no more than a couplet to illuminate how disconnected visual images narrate the forward progress of the play. A couple of lines of Marlowe's poetry serve as little more than captions for Akin's visual imagery.

Still, it must be admitted the images are often compelling, when they are not merely self-conscious or recondite.

Most of the nudity is front-loaded in the first half-hour. The evening is launched with a glimpse of one flash of penis, when the two languid, naked bodies who lie in hushed repose as the audience enters arise with the first light and put on robes. All the sexual acts depicted are mildly simulated and far from offensive, unless you are offended by sensuality. Apparently, Phoenix is hungry for such fare: This was the largest audience I have seen at Planet Earth, and the company has extended Edward II's run through February 9.

See it if you dare.--