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Theatre in Review: Tamburlaine, Parts I and II (Theatre for a New Audience/Polonsky Shakespeare Center)

John Douglas Thompson, Merritt Janson, Steven Skybell. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

Drums pound, armies assemble, and blood comes raining down -- quite literally -- in Michael Boyd's staging of Tamburlaine, Christopher Marlowe's epic melodrama of conquest and revenge. It has been nearly 60 years since Anthony Quayle stepped onto the stage of the Winter Garden Theatre as Marlowe's savage, world-dominating protagonist, and it is easy to see why we have had no Tamburlaine since then: the text features convoluted narrative and scene upon scene of pillage and slaughter, and a decent staging requires a stunningly gifted leading man, a large company of actors capable of pounding Marlowe's words into plausible weapons of war, and a director who can shape the sprawling narrative into a coherent evening.

All three requirements are met, and then some, in this extraordinary production. The title character finds an ideal impersonator in John Douglas Thompson. It has become commonplace to refer to Thompson as one of our finest classical actors; with this performance, it's time to remove the qualifier. Thompson uses his enormous stage presence to create an implacable warrior who destroys entire nations without once looking back. Dismissed early on as "that sturdy Scythian thief," he applies a cold logic of mass murder to the pursuit of "the sweet fruition of an earthly crown;" next to him, Shakespeare's Richard III is the shy, retiring type. Whether casually breaking the neck of an impertinent servant; removing a bloody, poisoned crown from the head of a rival; or using the back of a prostrate rival as a stepping stone, he is every inch "the scourge and wrath of God, the only fear and terror of the world."

More to the point, Thompson has the technical skill and stunning interpretative abilities to wrestle with Marlowe's muscular verse over the course of an eventful three hours. He carefully sheathes Tamburlaine's barbarous words and deeds in a robe of sweet reason, drawing us implicitly into his confidence while he spreads chaos and destruction. "Are you the witty king of Persia?" he asks, toying with a trembling fool of a Persian monarch, adding, "I would entreat you to speak but three wise words." Having taken hostage Zenocrate, daughter of the Soldan of Egypt, he woos her with a mixture of charm and implied menace. ("But, lady, this fair face and heavenly hue/Must grace his bed that conquers Asia.") But all traces of charm vanish when he kills his own unwarlike son (whom he icily terms "an effeminate brat") or when he tells his offspring that a town shall be "burnt to cinders for your mother's death." Indeed, it is the death of Zenocrate that cues Thompson's most terrifying moments, as Tamburlaine, faced for the first time with the one thing he cannot defeat, frantically seizes the deceased Zenocrate's limp body, trying to will it back to life.

But even a performance as mighty as this wouldn't be enough by itself to carry us through Marlowe's cunning game of geopolitical intrigue, and, fortunately, Boyd has marshalled a company with the skills to bring to life the play's parade of scheming, double-dealing, warlike kings and generals. In a cast of warriors, Paul Lazar stands out as the silly, childlike King of Persia, gnawing on a chicken leg and wiping his hands on a hem of an advisor before complaining that his own brother doesn't trust him. That brother, Cosroe, as played by Saxon Palmer, strides the stage like a modern politician, cagily eyeing the audience to gauge their reaction to his false words. As Meander, another Persian lord who knows when to switch sides, Steven Skybell offers a coolly rational study in the business of treason. Merritt Janson handles the verse beautifully as Zenocrate, and she makes a startlingly eerie presence when her corpse is carried everywhere by the devastated Tamburlaine. Keith Randolph Smith is fine as the most loyal of Tamburlaine's generals, and Patrice Johnson Chevannes is especially powerful as Zabina, the wife of Bajazeth, arguably Tamburlaine's most formidable enemy; calling for vengeance against him, she all but spits her words with the power of a witch summoning up a curse. ("Let all the swords and lances in the field/Stick in his breast as in their proper rooms!/At every pore let blood come dropping forth,/That lingering pains may massacre his heart,/And madness send his damned soul to hell!")

Arguably the biggest standout in the supporting cast is Chukwudi Iwuji; having impressed recently as Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra and as Edgar in King Lear, both at the Public Theater, he brings his natural authority and powerful voice to the roles of Bajazeth and the King of Trebizon, each of whom mounts a powerful attack against Tamburlaine. Iwuji is clearly ready to start tackling some of the major classical roles -- he would seem to be a natural Prince Hal or Hamlet -- and I look forward to seeing what he does with them.

Boyd's staging -- he also edited the text to create a fast-moving three-hour piece of epic theatre -- confidently deploys the large company across the nearly bare stage of Tom Piper's set, creating image after searing image of destruction: Tamburlaine enters carrying a cartful of crowns, each a symbol of a murdered monarch. A trio of Syrian virgins, clad in burkas and pleading for peace, is taken upstage, behind a curtain of vertical strips of plastic, on which blood flows downward as they are murdered. (The chilling special effects are by Jeremy Chernick.) A pair of defeated kings is reduced to beasts of burden, pulling their enemy's cart. The grief-stricken Tamburlaine and his army appear on the field of battle, carrying images of the dead Zenocrate. Later, ailing, Tamburlaine is surrounded by a circle of those he slaughtered, now calling him to account.

Of course, given a play in which Syria, Persia, Arabia, and Turkey all battle for control for the world, with the occasional meddling influence of the West, the parallels to modern history are almost too obvious to comment upon. (Orcanes, King of Natolia, contemplating the betrayal of Sigismund, King of Hungary, wonders, "Can there be such deceit in Christendom?" -- a line that got plenty of knowing laughter at the performance I attended.). Let's just say that, hundreds of years before Britain and Russian vied in The Great Game for control of Central Asia, Marlowe anticipated it with Tamburlaine.

Piper's costumes, which combine period, contemporary, and Asiatic influences, are generally effective, although it's a little confusing when the Governor of Babylon shows up in a 21st-century business suit. Matthew Richards' lighting blends clinical overhead fluorescent washes with warmer looks and, frequently, the highly directional use of one or two beams cutting through smoke to suggest a war-ravaged world. Jane Shaw, the sound designer, also supplemented Arthur Solari's score, which uses a variety of percussive effects to punctuate the action.

Perhaps one more reason why Tamburlaine has never occupied such a popular place in the repertory is its sheer relentlessness. There's plenty of drama in the plotting and counterplotting of nations contending for power, but the seemingly endless savagery becomes a bit wearing; also, it's a little disappointing that when doom comes calling for Tamburlaine, it's in the form on an unnamed illness and not at the hand of an armed opponent. Nevertheless, Thompson makes even Tamburlaine's weakness in these late scenes compelling. ("Ah, friends. What shall I do? I cannot stand.") And, as he meets his fate, we have been treated to an evening so overflowing with talent that it is impossible to complain. Theatre for a New Audience has given us a gift with this full-blooded, thoroughly realized revival of a play that, we may have forgotten, stands up against anything Marlowe's contemporary from Stratford-upon-Avon ever wrote.--David Barbour

(17 November 2014)

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