What are we to make of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine (John Douglas Thompson), the Scythian shepherd-turned-emperor who spends most of this two-part play committing mass murder without any hint of guilt or self-doubt? He resembles later theatrical incarnations of political evil, like Shakespeare’s Richard III and Macbeth, but no ghosts of victims come back to haunt him, no authorial voice makes clear that we are to respond to him like a villain. Of course, the Marlovian protagonist often occupies a position of seductive immorality (The Jew of Malta’s Barabas, for example) but this is usually tempered with a narrative outcome that leaves our ethics unoffended. Tamburlaine, on the other hand, burns down a town after a personal tragedy so that the buildings will reflect his disposition, he overflows the banks of a lake with the drowned bodies of men, women, and children, and he butchers king after king with a monotonous, impenetrable obsession—all without any repercussions. In the production currently running at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, in which Parts I and II are edited and combined, the actors often exit through the back of the auditorium and then reenter upstage, giving a sense of endless circularity. For Marlowe, Tamburlaine is a fact and the question of right and wrong is seemingly irrelevant.
Director Michael Boyd makes this a key point in his production, in which violence is ever-present but rarely causal. Deaths are often impressionistically rendered with one actor tossing a bucket of blood onto another instead of more realistic stabbings (and with so many deaths, a wet vac has to be brought in at intermission to clean the sopping stage floor). Mr. Thompson is extraordinary in what must be one of the most difficult of Elizabethan roles, since we have very little access to Tamburlaine’s thoughts; he is opaque and constantly hungry, roaring orders and killing messenger and son alike with the same unwavering indifference. The rest of the cast, doubling and tripling up on parts, also proves inexhaustible, and seeing the same faces reappear after death cements our sense of an unbroken cycle of violence. Paul Lazar is especially good as the buffoonish King of Persia, Mycetes, entering the stage with a loud belch and handing a half-eaten chicken leg off to an audience member before beginning the play’s opening speech. When he is killed, he stands cluelessly as a thin stream of blood trickles from the ceiling onto his head. Tamburlaine approaches him from behind, removes his crown, and before falling down Mr. Lazar exhales, “Oh,” a wonderfully understated moment in a normally high-pitched production.
Tamburlaine, often credited with inventing the modern drama (as compared to the morality plays of the medieval period), is under-read and rarely performed as its breadth and its patently ambiguous ethical position make it more difficult to engage with than, say, Doctor Faustus. But Theater for a New Audience works to amend that mistake and in doing so fulfills what should be the mission of all classical revival theaters: to offer a space for interesting and neglected works by great playwrights.
Tamburlaine, Parts I and II runs through January 4th at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center. 262 Ashland Place Brooklyn, NY. 3 hours 30 minutes including one 30-minute intermission.