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Edward II & Tamburlaine

The Shakespeare Theatre Company inaugurates its new theater with these two Christopher Marlowe plays -- only one of which succeeds. logo
Wallace Acton in Edward II
(© Carol Rosegg)
Choosing Tamburlaine and Edward II, the first and the last plays by Christopher Marlowe, to inaugurate Shakespeare Theatre Company's new, 775-seat Sidney Harman Hall is a bold gamble that only partially pays off. These little-known shows, which play in revolving repertory through early January, display both the rewards and pitfalls of Marlowe's work.

First, the rewards. Edward II was completed in 1592, when Marlowe was just 29 and soon to lose his life for being a nuisance to the Crown. Scholars say it is his best work, utilizing subtly beautiful poetry in the story of a weak king's downfall. The study in conscious self-destruction may have been informed by Marlowe's own life, adding layers of poignancy that are skillfully rendered by Wallace Acton in a dynamic return to the company.

Director Gale Edwards has moved the tale from the 1300s to a setting resembling the 1920s, which allows her to accent the gay relationship between Edward and Gaveston, a French commoner (Vayu O'Donnell). Highlighting the love story nicely colors the story, providing vivid rationale for the objections of a royal court to a kingly association that threatens the status quo. However, Edwards occasionally falls over the line into high camp, such as when we first see O'Donnell clad in a gold-colored suit (by designer Murell Horton) and sporting large, angelic wings to match his gold-hued hair. It's imagery that will come back to literally haunt Edward as power slips from his grasp. But the flashy scenes of debauchery at Edward's court are fun and don't undermine Marlowe's themes.

Acton, slight of stature but possessing a commanding voice that magnifies his presence, gradually dissolves from arrogant irritability to sorrow and angst as his own aristocracy evicts and then destroys Gaveston. Edwards has the king and his boy toy shock the court with public displays of royal affection (the text is concerned more with irritation that the king is handing royal appointments to a commoner). Edward's desires may be thwarted by his noblemen, but the sense of vulnerability Acton exploits allows him to expose this as the result of wayward self-destruction. It is a performance both subtle and shocking.

O'Donnell plays Gaveston as a contrary brat who enjoys trifling with everyone who meets his gaze. Andrew Long is dark and sinister as the scheming nobleman Mortimer, who plots Edward's downfall. He is matched by Deanne Lorette, displaying reptilian charm as Edward's discarded Queen Isabella. Karl Lundeberg's score, a melodramatic Jazz Age mélange, adds to the emotional undercurrent, amplifying Acton's emphasis on the agonies of a man who put his heart before his duty to tragic effect.

Michael Kahn, the company's longtime artistic director, is much less successful with Tamburlaine, the tale of a rough-hewn Scythian shepherd who rises to become the brutal Emperor of Persia. Part of the problem is the material, and part of it is Kahn's mechanical staging. Epic in its geographical and historical scope, it nevertheless lacks an emotional center. Its flaws highlight how much Marlowe's work evolved in the five years between Tamburlaine and Edward II.

Tamburlaine was groundbreaking and wildly popular in Marlowe's day, as it abandoned simplistic rhyming verse and allowed for natural expression. However, Kahn has cut the text by more than half, which may contribute to the sense that this is little more than a series of vignettes strung together. The cast chokes on exposition and scenes do not flow; one set of actors simply finishes talking and marches off, while the next group marches onstage.

Despite a bravura attempt from company favorite Avery Brooks to pump some life into the title character, Tamburlaine remains a remote, one-dimensional figure. Brooks chews what little scenery there is on Lee Savage's spartan set (which does double duty for both plays), but Tamburlaine simply lurches from one conquest to the next, with no lessons learned and with a notable lack of introspection. The audience can see that the strife and Tamburlaine's drive for exaltation lead nowhere, but does he? In the end, he simply fades away, undone neither by his own hand or that of another mortal, for a completely unsatisfying finale.

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