By Christopher Marlowe
Directed by Michael Kahn
Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
The great difference between Shakespeare and Marlowe was not in the Bard’s use of language – Marlowe was almost his equal, and leagues ahead of everyone else – but in Shakespeare’s mastery of plotting, dramatic arc, and subtle characterization. Tamburlaine, which Marlowe wrote when he was only 23, caused a sensation when it debuted four hundred and twenty years ago, but it strikes us today as curiously linear. It is a study of Timur the Lame, a famous man whose singular accomplishment was killing other people and taking their real property.
Watching Tamburlaine, thus, is like watching a trencherman at an all-you-can-eat buffet. The great tyrant, as animated by Avery Brooks, enters the stage as a light and playful fellow, having just hijacked a caravan transporting Zenocrate (Mia Tagano), the daughter of the Sultan of Egypt. Tamburlaine, who, like Marlowe himself, was the son of a working man, leads a small crew of bandits but imagines himself to someday be Emperor of Asia, and having nubile royalty drop into his hands seems like the blessing of destiny. Almost boyishly giddy, he next persuades the head of a thousand-man troop (Scott Jaeck) sent by the foppish, peevish King of Persia (Floyd King) to cast his lot with Tamburlaine and against the King.
Thereafter, in short order, he conspires with the King’s brother Cosroe (Andrew Long) to dispossess the King of his crown, and then turns on Cosroe, kills him, and takes the Kingdom of Persia for himself. The Turkish Empire is next: soon, Tamburlaine has captured the Emperor (David McCann), his wife (Franchelle Stewart Dorn) and son (Jeremy Pryzby), keeping them in chains for his amusement. Then it’s on to Damascus, where he slaughters the entire population for resisting his advances, and finally Egypt. He conquers Egypt in what appears to be 2 days, but spares the life of the Sultan (David Emerson Toney) at the intercession of the Sultan’s daughter Zenocrate, who by this point is delighted to be the consort of Tamburlaine.
Act II, which appears to be about 25 years later, is much of the same, although with less velocity. (The two acts are actually two different plays – Act I is the original Tamburlaine, and Act II is the sequel, Tamburlaine the Great. Director Michael Kahn adapted them into this single presentation).
The Turkish Emperor’s son Callapine, now an adult (Jay Whittaker) convinces his spectacularly dim jailer (Robert Jason Jackson) to spring him. Callapine proceeds to revivify Turkey, and then goes to war against Tamburlaine. The great tyrant captures three of Callapine’s supporters (Jonathan Earl Peck, James Denvil, and Christopher Marino), forces them to the bit and bridle, and compels them, at the end of a whip, to drag his chariot throughout the streets to Babylon. There, Tamburlaine burns the great city to the ground, and executes its Governor (John Lescault) in spectacular fashion. But Callapine escapes, and continues to plot against Tamburlaine.
The second Act is marginally less martial and more intimate, in that it contains the murderous conflict between Tamburlaine and one of his sons (Danyon Davis) and the deaths of Zenocrate and, ultimately, Tamburlaine himself. Both of these important deaths are from natural causes, and seem to have no significance to any of the larger themes of the play. Tamburlaine’s death comes shortly after he defiles the memory of Mohammed and burns a copy of the Qur’an (the real Timur claimed in his memoirs to have put thousands of Hindus to death in the name of Islam), but it is hard to imagine that Marlowe was suggesting that God would punish those who scorned Islam. There is also in the second Act a grimly amusing scene in which a soldier’s widow (Amy Kim Waschke) dupes a Tamburlainian general (Jaeck), but it has little to do with the play’s central action.
It is impossible to overstate the impact Marlowe’s play had on 16th Century audiences. The nonstop action, vivid language and intense characterizations were like nothing they had seen before. Alas, we have come to expect even more these days, thanks in large part to the man whose name graces the company which produced this play. The play has an abundance of art and artifice but it has no insight and the Tamburlaine at the end of the play is exactly the same as the Tamburlaine at the beginning of the play except for the fact, of course, that he is dead. By the same token, Tamburlaine’s opposition comes unvaryingly in one of three flavors: the negotiator, who Tamburlaine rebuffs and takes into slavery; the warrior, who Tamburlaine defeats and takes into slavery; and the warrior who tries to follow up with negotiation. You can guess what happens to him.
The Shakespeare Theatre does what it can with this material. The production values – the immense stage topped with four drummers pounding man-size drums; the exotic wailing, as if from a minaret; the smoke billowing from distant cities; Tamburlaine’s colossal chariot – were close to the top, but never over.
A read-through of the cast list is like looking at a lineup card for a team of Washington all-stars. (I have not mentioned the excellent Craig Wallace as a top aide to Tamburlaine, or David Sabin, James Konicek and Jefferson A. Russell in multiple roles). There are some astounding performances. King’s comic portrayal of the Persian Monarch is an almost textbook picture of a man mesmerized by self-pity, and Dorn’s sense that Tamburlaine has wounded not only her but the natural order is palpable. Tamburlaine’s generals (Terence Archie as well as Wallace and Jaeck) superbly set off Brooks’ tyrant; it seems like the actors themselves, no less than Tamburlaine’s martial force, have been working together for years.
Director Kahn never misses an opportunity to mine the material for characterization; he reaches his apogee, I think, in a florid speech which Tamburlaine delivers about the pain which Zenocrate’s impending death will cause him while Zenocrate, outside the circle of his attention, actually dies.
Some have criticized Brooks’ past portrayals of classical figures as overstated or mannered. All I can say is that this role seems to fit perfectly. He is entirely natural as a man who would be glad to slay you and drink your blood, or, should the occasion call for it, drink his own. Tamburlaine was, in history, a theatrical character. His theatricality, Marlowe suggests, was part of his success. And, indeed, perhaps Tamburlaine found it easier to order the deaths of thousands in the voice of an actor than straight from his true heart. I noticed that at the end of the curtain call, Brooks, the actor, laid Tamburlaine’s sword down on the stage and walked away from it as if it were poisonous. Would be it that Tamburlaine had done the same thing.
Bottom line? Beautiful production (Jennifer Moeller’s costumes were out of this world), some superb performances, and fine, fine work by the actor playing the title role. But for all that, Tamburlaine is less accessible than, for example, most Shakespearian plays. Attend, if you will, without expectations, and accept the gifts which appear before you for what they are.
By way of full disclosure I must reveal that I took an acting class from Andrew Long (or, as I’ve been saying since he won the Helen Hayes Award, I’ve studied under Andrew Long). This has not affected my review of this play, however.
Running Time: 3:00 with one intermission
Where: The Shakespeare Theatres’ gorgeous new Harmon Hall facility, 610 F Street NW. Washington, DC
When: Tuesdays at 7.30 p.m. on Nov 13 and 27 and Dec11; Wednesday, Dec 12 at noon; Wednesdays at 7.30 p.m. on Nov 14 and 28 and Dec 12 and 26; Thursdays at 8 p.m. Dec 6, 20 and 27; Friday at 2 p.m. on Nov 23; Fridays at 8 p.m. Novemb 23, Dec 7 and 21 and Jan 4; Saturdays at 2 p.m. on Nov 24, Dec 8 and 22 and Jan 5; Saturdays at 8 p.m. Nov 17 and Dec 1, 15 and 29; Sundays at 2 p.m. Nov 18 and Dec 2 and 30; Sundays at 7.30 p.m. on Nov 11 and 25, Dec 9 and 23, and Jan 6.
Tickets: $23.50 — $79.75.
Information: 202.547.1122 or write http://www.shakespearetheatre.org/.
Editor’s note: Shakespeare Theatre’s Marlowe Mini-Festival includes Marlowe’s Edward II, running in repertory with Tamburlaine, Rorschach Theatre’s lusty life and times of the author, Kit Marlowe, among a host of Marlowe celebrations.