The setup: 'Ods bodkins, good gentlefolk, there's an intriguing premise at work in Charles Marowitz's English Renaissance thriller, Murdering Marlowe. If you have a passing interest in Elizabethan theater and the world of Shakespeare, this will be your goblet of tea. There's much to laud.
The execution: Scribbler Marowitz has done the unthinkable and might even stand accused of heresy for what he shows upon the stage. He hath turned the immortal Bard of Avon into a green-eyed, envious young lout who plots the death of a fellow playwright, the honored Christopher Marlowe, playmaker of such popular London hits as Tamburlaine, Dr. Faustus, The Jew of Malta and Edward II.
Why the callow youth thinks this is the only method to get his work produced is not addressed. Sure, knocking off a rival may speed up one's progress, but Marlowe, no matter how feted and successful, no matter how far up success's ladder, was but one of many playwrights scrambling to earn a living in plague-ravaged London, to secure patronage, and make ends meet with endless tours of the provinces when the theaters shut down for disease. Bumping off Marlowe wouldn't necessarily lift Will any higher -- there were too many others waiting to fill the void. His work alone would have to catapult him to the heights.
Once we make the very big leap to accuse beloved Will of this heinous crime, where else does it lead? Naturally, he becomes a very bad fellow all around, especially to his love-starved older wife Anne, whom he treats with disdain and loathing.
Sweet William becomes the biggest opportunist in town, a struggling upstart who paves the way to success by hiring thugs to ice his rival and, to really gild the lily, bed Marlowe's mistress and make her his own. The basic premise is shaky and doesn't hold together, but there's so much love for the ripe language of the time that we forgive the skewed painting of Shakespeare and focus on the gilded frame which is bright and dazzling.
Former critic, founder of London's Open Space Theatre and author of numerous books on the theater (many pertaining to Shakespeare), Marowitz displays ample knowledge about the period (see end note) and cleverly incorporates some Shakespearean homage into the dialogue.
This play is a treat to listen to. We're caught in the net from the very first scene, young Shakespeare in prayer as he confesses his hatred, fear and obsession over Marlowe. He compares him to a "giant compass so wide-extended that his north cannot his south observe," whose "dark genius is to mine like a firebrand to a lighted straw" and "whose works fall lightly from his pen like shipwreck't treasure bobbing to the surface of the sea." This honey-tongued language sounds so true we smile as it hits our ears, for it contains both reverence and parody.
Once Will sets his nefarious scheme in motion, he fades into the background, and subsidiary characters rise to take his place. If he has such loathing for Kit, shouldn't they have a really juicy scene between them, something considerably more electric than the only scene they do share: a lame, fill-in-the-blanks theater history lesson at the tavern? The scene, like the rest of the play, is thrown to Marlowe, who, along with mistress Emilia, ruffian Poley and bumpkin accomplice Frizer, sadistic spy Maunder and theater impresario Henslow, makes a pretty round-robin of daily life at the time.
Marlowe is especially well limned, a mass of contradictions that make him all the more interesting and human: coarse and refined, a lover of boys and women, swearing to God he's an atheist, as he tweaks the nose of the Virgin Queen while he depends upon her largesse and protection.
Like Shakespeare, we know virtually nothing about Marlowe's life except from scant official records, like the inquest after his death, where the three men who were involved in the tavern brawl were exonerated (one of them did spend some time in the Tower). It all seems very suspicious, and some conspiracy theorists assume Marlowe was a spy working for the crown against the Catholics and Spain who was silenced for what he knew about the higher-up double agents in Elizabeth's cabinet. That could be its own play.
Actor J. Cameron Cooper has a long history with Shakespeare, so it must come as something of a delight for him to actually be playing the Bard. Lean as sea grass, he's a passionate poet brimming with ideas and hot for married lady Emilia. He reads those sweet Elizabethan phrases of Marowitz with tender feeling and ease of command. You can imagine this guy later writing about some brooding prince of Denmark.
Scott McWhirter is Marlowe encapsulated: usually drunk and continuously horny. He's dark and conflicted, and McWhirter eats him up. As conspirators Poley and Frizer, Sam Martinez and Anthony Torres play them with relish; Martinez with high dudgeon over Marlowe's political and personal views, and Torres with stupid malevolence.
Haley Cooper, as free-wielding Emilia, overlays her sexiness with wiles. She knows full well what men desire of her and uses that knowledge as shield and weapon. L. Robert Westeen, as interrogator and royal toady Maunder, lords it over the powerless but is impotent against his superiors. He blusters convincingly. Scott Holmes, as theater producer Henslow with one eye on the cashbox, mines all the comedy out of his toadying character. If anyone will survive political intrigue or make a play profitable, he will. As nagging Anne, Melissa McEver Huckabay has a harder time of it. She does not speak the speech trippingly on the tongue as do the others, and her tirades against Will and confrontation with rival Emilia fall flat.
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The production is Globe-minimal, which lets the language ring out, with Deborah Blake's costumes an impressionistic mix of period pieces with touches of the contemporary. Director Christine Weems moves the pseudo-history play along with bracing clip, keeping the flow seamless and unstoppable.
(On a historical note: Anne and company bounce back and forth between London and Stratford as if they take the Bullet Train. Packing to move back home, Anne says she'll take the coach. Sorry, but there was no stagecoach to Stratford. There was hardly a road. It was a difficult four-day slog on horseback, through brigand territory with nary an inn along the way to offer comfort. In Elizabethan England, you didn't travel for pleasure -- you didn't travel.)
The verdict: While we never really understand what drives genius Shakespeare to this murder most foul, the Elizabethan spider web of treachery, deceit, debauchery and high-soaring language is amply on display. Marowitz flies his banner high; Country Playhouse waves it with panache.
The grunge life in Renaissance London, with guest appearances by Shakespeare and Marlowe along with a raft of savory lowlifes, runs through November 17 in the Black Box at Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury. Purchase tickets online at countryplayhouse.org or call 713-467-4497. $12-$22.