Editorial Review

A Beautiful Place for an Uphill March
New Stage Is the True Star Of Plodding 'Tamburlaine'

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 9, 2007

If one of the Shakespeare Theatre Company's missions in its new home is to test audiences' tolerance for the difficult, the first exam turns out to be a doozy.

"Tamburlaine," an epic-length portrait of a Central Asian thief transformed into a godless conqueror, makes the emphatic statement that Michael Kahn's company is becoming even more adventurous in skirting the usual classical suspects. Christopher Marlowe's two-part play -- here condensed for a single evening -- so rarely captures a major theater's imagination that few playgoers ever get the chance to see it.

Marlovian scholars and lovers of standard-waving pageantry will no doubt be thrilled. For the rest of us, the three-hour production in swarthily handsome Sidney Harman Hall constitutes something several degrees less than thrilling. Although Marlowe's poetry is recited on the honeyed tongue of Avery Brooks's Tamburlaine and on the other voices of what feels like a cast of thousands, the play is little more than a numbingly solemn march, strewn with the bodies of numberless potentates bulldozed into oblivion by a gangster of the Middle Ages.

The rollout of Shakespeare Theatre's extraordinary expansion into the 775-seat hall on F Street, across from the Verizon Center, continues this weekend: A second Marlowe play, "Edward II," will run in repertory with "Tamburlaine" through January. Even if these inaugural productions fail to ignite, the occasion remains a hot one for the performing arts in Washington. In its elegant, elastic new space in the heart of Penn Quarter, this company is staking a bona fide claim to be the region's most dynamic theater.

That is why you can admire what Kahn attempts to do with "Tamburlaine," even if "Tamburlaine" itself proves not to be the most welcoming centerpiece for a housewarming. To inaugurate a headquarters for Shakespeare with a play by a less celebrated contemporary of the Bard might seem a tad illogical. Think of it, though, as a broadening of a menu rather than the replacement of the specialty of the house.

(And anyway, the company later this season will offer two of Shakespeare's popular Roman plays, "Julius Caesar" and "Antony and Cleopatra," in repertory at Harman Hall.)

Charting the rise of its rapacious protagonist -- a happy warrior if there ever was one -- as he terrorizes one civilization after another, "Tamburlaine" provides a vast canvas that's suited to a big stage. Thus the play gives Kahn an opportunity to make the space the evening's star. He and set designer Lee Savage use only a few banners and set pieces to adorn the stage, a cart on wheels being the one prominent mobile element: It performs the pivotal duties as conveyor, container and enslaver of vanquished royalty. The turbans and plush robes by designer Jennifer Moeller, meanwhile, exude the lavishness of garments spun from silk and precious metals.

With the vibrant assistance of lighting designer Mark McCullough, we are invited to take in the height and depth of the multipurpose performance space, which is in its "open" configuration -- meaning there's no proscenium arch, and the playing area is completely exposed. A soundscape, courtesy of composer Karl Lundeberg, provides a relentless, percussive beat and a link to the honor and ancient rituals of hand-to-hand combat.

None of these decorative elements, however, cuts through the stolidity of the play. In the London of 1587, when the piece was first shown, forbearance of a blank-verse-driven work -- with characters only slightly more flesh-and-blood than those of a medieval mystery cycle -- had to have been appreciably higher.

Kahn's refined approach doesn't help much, either. The experience is akin to watching a rather plodding opera, with arrays of sultans and concubines and assorted sword carriers sweeping in and out and posing in artful groups of threes and fours. The battle scenes, assembled by veteran combat director Rick Sordelet, are also surprisingly anticlimactic. Most of them involve masses of actors striking at an enemy once or twice and then dashing off into the wings. You're reminded at times of the Monty Python battle cry: "Run away!"

This is, after all, the savage story of a Scythian brute who not only took pleasure in tormenting captive kings -- Tamburlaine's parading of the caged Turkish emperor Bajazeth (David McCann) being one of the evening's high points -- but also had his soldiers regularly drag innocent peasantry down to the rivers for drowning.

From Persia to Constantinople to Damascus we're taken, witnesses to the marauder's merciless campaign. Tamburlaine comes to see invincibility as proof of godliness and becomes ever bolder in challenging religious primacy. At one point late in the drama's second part, he has the Muslim holy books of an enemy thrown onto a bonfire, a sacrilege for which, finally, there does seem divine retribution: The act is the preamble to his undoing.

In his sonorous basso, Brooks effortlessly convinces us that he's a leader to pay heed to -- or else. The role is huge, speech-packed and positively exhausting; that he gets through it at all is an achievement. The play supplies few outstanding parts, although Mia Tagano does fine by Zenocrate, the queen who comes to love a tyrant who first took her by force. As Bajazeth and his queen Zabina, McCann and Franchelle Stewart Dorn bring out successfully both the hauteur and pitiableness in degraded nobility. And Scott Jaeck, Craig Wallace and Terence Archie feistily play the supplicating capos to Brooks's willful don.

(One nice sentimental touch: It will be recorded that the first line ever spoken in a Shakespeare Theatre production at Harman Hall was by company stalwart Floyd King, portraying something akin to the Middle Ages' answer to the Cowardly Lion.)

You might find the three hours spent in the company of Marlowe more than a bit tiresome. But gazing around this important new space for the classics, you can let your mind wander to the better evenings that doubtless are yet to come. And that, really, is all the pick-me-up you need.