Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Surprising TFANA Tamburlaine — Still Running Red!

Theatre for a New Audience continues to use its new space at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center well.  This time they’ve provided the opportunity to see Marlowe’s Tamburlaine for the first — and presumably last — time.

For some gladsome reason Michael Boyd decided to cut the two 3-4 hour plays that comprise Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great, Parts 1 and 2, into one play that runs about 2 ½ hours with 30 minutes in the middle to give the stage crew time to mop up all the blood during intermission.  The play may not be so bloody as Evil Dead the Musical nor The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and yet it holds its own.

The play follows a chronological and geographical structure as Tamburlaine (a Scythian shepherd who has turned to raiding and marauding and gathering followers along the way), goes from territory to territory in Africa and Asia to conquer and control. While this pointless continuation of killing for titles appears illogical to a modern audience, that doesn’t keep the playwright from moving from one place on a map (he loves place names!) to the next, so Tamburlaine can kill one king, regent, prince after another.  It’s mad.  And it’s bold.  The battle between religious groups is nothing new — Marlowe has some Christian king breaking his word to Muslims, Muslims betray one another, and the only one who wins is the Scythian marauder Tamburlaine, who claims the title of every man he kills — King of Persia, Emperor of Turkey, Kings of Fez, Morocco, Argier, the map expands as the play continues.  It certainly sounds like nothing much has changed since Marlowe wrote Tamburlaine around 1587 and the present.  The maps have merely expanded to more land and changed some names.

I offer immense kudos to director/editor Michael Boyd as well as gratitude since I’m not likely to sit through two nights of four hours of bloodletting however heightened the language.  The theatricality of the blood-letting is admirable, the effects horrifying — although the gallons of blood did not compare to the tossing of a single cut-off tongue, which left us all aghast.  Tamburlaine goes beyond beyond, and even the come-uppance of dis-likable characters goes too far.  Mind you, there are a lot of laughs in this production of Tamburlaine, particularly from the ever off-kilter Saxon Palmer.  Add to him the delightful Steven Skybell, Matthew Amendt, Chukwudi Iwuji in an extraordinary performance going from the heights to the pits... really the whole cast is marvelous.

John Douglas Thompson and Chukwudi Iwuji (Photo Credit Gerry Goodstein)
The brilliant, amazing, lovably terrifying John Douglas Thompson as Tamburlaine the Great is a requirement for a play like this, and Mr. Thompson can carry it.  Although I cannot understand quite how his (or anyone’s) rhetoric could lead Theridamas (Andrew Hovelson) to betray his country or king (etc.), nor to persuade his captive to happily become a wife, Thompson’s Tamburlaine was magical and funny and oddly down-to-earth.  And quite mad, of course.  No resting on his laurels, no matter how many he conquered — he just liked the conquering.  Merritt Janson did fine work as Tamburlaine’s other conquest, the unlikely wife, Zenocrate (daughter of the Soldan of Egypt).  Nilanjana Bose was more than convincing as Olympia, the conquered woman still loyal to her husband even in death. 

Of all the wonderful actors in this play, I think my favorite was Paul Lazar, who set us up to laugh from the opening, so we knew it would be OK to laugh through the bloodletting as he played the doomed King of Persia, later the Soldan of Egypt, and finally Almeda the Jailor. 

Finally, the choreography by Sam Pinkleton, music by Arthur Solari, fight direction by J. Allen Suddeth all worked together to bring us this remarkable piece edited and directed by Mr. Boyd with dramaturgy by Jonathan Kalb.  Rather than rolling over in his grave at the massive cuts to his scripts, I suspect Mr. Marlowe is grinning ear to ear at this modern re-telling.  After all, everyone but writers know that less is more.

Alas, I saw this play near the end of its run so recommending it is practically a pointless exercise — EXCEPT that run has been extended through January 4th.  Do your darnedest to make it there — otherwise, just keep an eye out for anything edited or directed by Michael Boyd, and anything in which John Douglas Thompson appears.  Well done, TFANA.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, probably for the last post this year….or maybe not….

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