‘Tamburlaine, Parts I and II’ at Theatre for a New Audience

Blood will have blood

Warning: There will be blood. And not just a little, either.

Fearsome yet admirable: John Douglas Thompson as Tamburlaine. (Photos by Gerry Goodstein)

Buckets of blood, showers of blood, blood splattered on the floor, blood sprayed onto plastic curtains, blood slathered onto bodies. If you’ve cringed at Aeschylus’s Ajax, if you’ve shrunk from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, if you’ve recoiled from McDonagh’s Lieutenant of Inishmore, wait till you see Tamburlaine, the spectacular gorefest by Christopher Marlowe, the Bard’s contemporary.

But don’t shy away. Rather, feel fortunate. Marlowe’s dense two-part epic has been pared down to a mere three hours for its current production at the Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn. It hasn’t been produced here in 60 years, and yet when it premiered in London (1587) it was a wild hit, garnering fame for its 23-year-old author. Thanks to Michael Boyd’s arresting interpretation, you won’t be surprised.

Tamburlaine is not for the fainthearted theatergoer — and I don’t mean because of the blood (and occasional bits of tongue) all over the stage. There’s also its subject matter. I, for one, knew nothing about 14th-century Central Asian history before I saw this epic. So be prepared to multitask for three hours, with one eye on the program notes and the other on the stage, so you won’t fall behind. Believe me, it’s hard not to, with 19 actors playing roughly 60 roles. But you won’t want to miss a beat.

The new Genghis Khan

Tamburlaine offers the gripping rise-and-fall story one of history’s most fascinating (yet little known) historical figures, Timur the Lame of Persia. He rose from a humble Muslim shepherd to ruler of three-quarters of the known world, conquering vast lands stretching east from Morocco through the Middle East and Turkish Empire to parts of Central Asia, killing an estimated 17 million in his wake. He dreamed of becoming the “new Genghis Khan,” and only illness and death in 1405 stopped him.

Marlowe dramatizes his rise to power with the same fervor and fearlessness that his protagonist showed when he conquered empires. One by one, we watch Tamburlaine’s opposing armies topple, as actors change roles and robes and kingdoms and crowns to play his next set of victims.  At some point, you stop following the names and sit back and watch in awe (evoking disturbing visions of ISIS today).

As played by the charismatic actor John Douglas Thompson, you’ll be surprised to find that, fearsome as Tamburlaine is, you actually admire his powers, certainly more than Shakespeare’s villainous Richard III or the ambitious Macbeth (a role Thompson played at TFANA with equal virtuosity a few years ago).  Marlowe gives him an admirable attribute: Tamburlaine falls deeply in love with Zenocrate, the paramour of one of his vanquished foes, and she eventually returns his sentiments. His tender, abiding devotion to her gives his character a deeply human dimension. After she dies, he insists that her coffined body accompany him on every battlefield. Driven mad with grief, he tortures his opponents and murders one of his three sons who doesn’t share his war lust. Yet despite his cruelty, we feel a flash of pity for him, thanks to Thompson’s powerful performance.

Drawing on his experience as artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and decades of staging Shakespeare’s plays, director Michael Boyd has not only pared down the huge text, but he’s also made an obscure story accessible to contemporary audiences. He bares the thrust stage to allow Tamburlaine and his armies to sweep over their battlefields with breathtaking speed. Moreover, he’s created a vertical dimension, with actors appearing on balconies surrounding the stage, with overpowering effect. He offers dozens of innovative directorial strokes, including the cart on which the dead Zenocrate (played by a very alive Merritt Janson) follows her husband through the battlefield. As for the rest of his talented cast, he has them address the audience directly, so we’re always engaged. Paul Lazar and Steven Skybell are especially captivating in their various colorful roles and inventive line readings.  

And then, of course, there’s the blood. You may think you’ve seen it all when it comes to stage battles, but Michael Boyd will dazzle you with his expert craft. Scores of soldiers die in Tamburlaine, yet Boyd pulls enough tricks out of his director’s bag to ensure that he rarely repeats himself. A designated victim will simply drop to the floor, whereupon his aggressor approaches and pours a bucket of blood over his fallen body; then the dead man stands and exits, to assume the role of Tamburlaine’s next victim. Or one of Tamburlaine’s henchman will use a brush to paint blood all over his victim’s body, and so on.

Marvelous Marlowe

Don’t expect anything that approaches Shakespeare’s sublime poetry. But Marlowe’s blank verse gets his point across. “O cursed he who first invented war,” a character says at the top, and after three hours fly by, you’ll feel the full wrath of the God of Battle. Meanwhile, you might even be thinking, as Shakespeare must have done when he saw Tamburlaine: “Hmm…an idea for a play about a Scottish King….”

Speaking of the Bard, Marlowe, his contemporary, was quite a colorful fellow. He’s appeared as a character in a number of recent works, including the films Shakespeare in Love (played by Rupert Everett) and Anonymous. Born in 1564, only two months before Shakespeare, Marlowe was the son of a shoemaker and a graduate of Cambridge. He was rumored to have been a spy for Queen Elizabeth’s secret service, and was arrested for murder, street-brawling, and counterfeiting. He also found time to write seven plays (including The Jew of Malta and Doctor Faustus). He died in a tavern brawl at 29.

Someone should write a new play about Marlowe.

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