Cupid, god of love, sings without moving his lips. In the background, music played on a theremin is heard. Around Cupid, everyone is frozen in place, enraptured. Nearby, a woman kneels on the floor, slowly embroidering a piece of cloth; the movement of her hand is the only movement on stage. This is but one of many stunning images in a rare production of Christopher Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage. Director David Herskovits, who is adept at staging such hauntingly beautiful tableaux, cuts to the core of this early work by the 16th-century playwright.
The production is highly stylized; actors strike poses and gesture with their arms in flowing movements, and they rarely look each other in the eye. In the wrong hands, such an approach would be a recipe for disaster. But, as presented by the Obie-winning Target Margin Theater, this is an oddly moving Dido that streamlines and clarifies Marlowe's text without sacrificing any of the beauty of his poetry.
Though the show clocks in at an intermissionless hour and a half, the play's structure and language remain intact. Aeneas, on the run after the fall of Troy, is shipwrecked on a strange shore. He and his men are taken in by the realm's queen, Dido. Due to the machinations of the gods (particularly Venus and Juno), the two fall in love. There are numerous subplots, all dealing with love and desire. The god Jupiter is pursuing the beautiful youth Ganymede; Iarbus, King of Gaetulia, courts Dido, while Dido's sister Anna is in love with Iarbus.
The cast rises to the challenge of both Marlowe's verse and Herskovits' quirky staging. Nicole Halmos in the title role is a particularly commanding presence, striking a fascinating balance between comic absurdity and casual cruelty. Adrian La Tourelle, as Aeneas, is also compelling; his lengthy speech about the end of the Trojan War is spellbinding in the simplicity of its delivery. Rinne Groff, in the dual role of Venus and Anna, speaks in a near monotone that is nevertheless inflected with a rich, emotional depth.
The cavernous Ohio Theater is put to good use here by scenic designer David Zinn, whose large rolling set pieces would be unwieldly in most Off-Off Broadway spaces. The color scheme is heavy with reds and golds, a palette also reflected in the costume design of Kaye Voyce.
Target Margin's Dido, Queen of Carthage is the first installment in a season devoted to Marlowe's theatrical oeuvre: Readings of Doctor Faustus and The Massacre of Paris are being held in February, and a full staging of Tamburlaine is set for April. With any luck, they'll be as engaging as this current production, which succeeds in making the text clear, interesting, and accessible to contemporary audiences.