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A CurtainUp Review
Tamburlaine, Parts I and II
By Elyse Sommer
His Tamburlaine the Great was the big hit of his limited oeuvre. However, since Marlowe's fine verse was applied to such a graphically brutal and lengthy story, its popularity faded and productions nowadays are rare. That's why it's a treat to see Michael Boyd's striking staging with an A-plus 19-member ensemble headed by thespian par excellence John Douglas Thompson.
Boyd and his team couldn't have wished for a more apt venue than Theatre For a New Audience's Polonsky Shakespeare Center in which to mount the story of the power-crazed, blcodthirsty peasant who overthrew kingdom after kingdom. The company's handsome new home, now in its second season, is modeled after the Elizabethan theaters. Unlike Shakespeare & Company's similarly configured Founders Theater with its warm, royal red walls, the TFNA's darker hues are ideally suited to this bloody tale.
It is indeed bloody. But Boyd has devised a clever and very effective conceit to depict the bloody killings (don't even try to count them!). Every time someone get sent to the great beyond, out comes someone with a bucket of blood. The characters thus doused with the red stuff, then exit — usually with blood stains seeping into their clothing. Sometimes the dead-to-be head out through the huge strips of plastic which then turn an eerie red.
The lands conquered by the Thompson's self-proclaimed "scourge and terror to the world" Iran, Mesopotamia, Armenia, Georgia, India and Syria, as well as the Ottoman Empire. He falls in love with Zenocrate (Merritt Janson, a fine match for the magnetic Thompson), the daughter of his first royal conquest, the silly Egyptian Soldan (Paul Lazar adding a much needed bit of humor). Except for that love, which includes his potent proposal, Tamburlaine is a merciless tyrant. Even with his multiple murders (including a horrifying slaughter of the Virgins of Damascus) kept off-stage by Boyd's stylized approach there are plenty of on stage illustrations the way he subjugates conquered people and zestfully tortures their leaders.
One of the most horrific examples Tamburlaine's relentless cruelty treatment of the Ottoman emperor and his empress Bajazeth (Chukwudi Iwuji and Patrice Johnson Chevannes) is his using the Emperor as a footstool, caging him and eventually causing both his royal victims to kill themselves. Another jaw-dropping scene sees Tamburlaine riding in a chariot with a handful of captured kings used as horses and Tamburlaine gleefully declaring "Now crouch, ye kings of greatest Asia/And tremble, when ye hear this scourge will come/ That whips down cities and controlleth crowns
With the ensemble portraying some sixty characters it can be a bit confusing to sort out who's who and from where among all these kings can be confusing. It's therefore advisable to arrive early enough to read the plot synopsis helpfully provided in the program.
I could go on, for the single-minded quest to be emperor of the world continues throughout the both parts which clock in at three hours (plus a half hour intermission needed by the stage hands to clean up all that spilled blood). It's a long "sit" but Thompson's amazingly human villain and the compelling stage craft make this feel shorter than many a ninety minute one-acter.
Mr. Boyd's swiftly paced epic is beautifully supported by Tom Piper's striking but simple visual design, highlighted by an upstage curtain of clear plastic strips eventually covered with blood (courtesy of lighting designer Matthew Richards. Piper is equally effective as costume designer, dressing his actors in a mix of non-specific but apt outfits — including a blood red coat for Tamburlaine.
Composer/percussionist Arthur Solaril is perched right above that plastic rear wall to aurally support and enhance the shifting moods. Yet one more reason to make this production compulsory viewing for anyone who cares about theater history and top-flight acting.