Christopher Marlowe -- the film noir detective indelibly played by Humphrey Bogart, the guy who made loneliness cool, the secret romantic who was always ready with a cynical crack, the guy who took no guff from authority figures.
Wait a minute. That was Philip Marlowe, and he's fictional.
Christopher Marlowe was a great English dramatist, poet and, yes, spy who might have outshone Shakespeare if he hadn't been stabbed to death in 1593 at age 29. Yeah, Christopher Marlowe, who made loneliness cool, had a cynical wit disguising a romantic core and had trouble with those in charge. It's easy to see how one might confuse the two.
On this slender bit of whimsy, local playwright and director Gretchen Jacobs has created "Brightness Falls," subtitled "The Tragical History of Christopher Marlowe," now having its premiere at the Greenbelt Arts Center. The word "tragical" is problematic, suggesting a serious examination of Marlowe's life. But Jacobs's play veers between guessed-at history and tongue-in-cheek comedy, and the portrait she has drawn of Marlowe is of a callow man whose death does not rise to the level of tragedy.
Jacobs became intrigued by Marlowe while watching the film "Shakespeare in Love," and was surprised to find gaps in his biography. He disappeared frequently, and it is thought that he spent time as a secret agent for Queen Elizabeth, spying on Catholics who were plotting against the queen's Anglican government. Jacobs attempts to fill in some of the blanks but does not shed any light on his genius or the biggest mystery of all surrounding Marlowe, the suggestion that he penned a portion of the work attributed to Shakespeare.
Marlowe's life could reasonably provide enough material for an interesting story He was a genius who brought blank verse and spectacle to Elizabethan drama and made indelible contributions to literature and folklore with such plays as "Dr. Faustus." But Jacobs concentrates instead on Marlowe's penchant for getting into trouble with the authorities who had previously protected him during his secret agent days. He was a homosexual and an impulsive fellow who easily got into scrapes. Marlowe made comments the church considered heresy and was destined for a torture chamber when killed. Did these proclivities spark an assassination, meant to keep him from spilling royal secrets during torture? Or was his death just the result of a brawl? "Brightness Falls" makes no firm conclusion.
The play opens in the aftermath of Marlowe's death. "You have heard the official story of my death," Marlowe says, rising from his deathbed. "But have you heard the truth?" The rest of the play is flashback, starting with Marlowe's school days and leading to the fatal stabbing. It is a busy play, as a cast of 16 portrays 27 characters. Marlowe is seen as a fey and shallow quipster interested mostly in having a good time and not above casual killing. There are portions of his works performed but without any real connection to the author.
Marlowe is played by Greenbelt newcomer Stephen Davis in a somewhat listless performance that is overshadowed by the striking figure of the play's narrator, Bill Hardy. The dash and panache that should be Marlowe's have been given to the narrator, and Hardy takes full advantage of it, moving in and out of scenes with a wry comment or trenchant remark. Also making strong impressions are Sam DePriest, walking a fine line between farce and drama in two roles, and character actor Greg Coale, marvelously mischievous as Ingram Frizer, who wields the fatal blade.
Jacobs, who also directs, keeps the cast moving at a sprightly pace, and her play is offbeat enough to be interesting. Some reworking is in order, however, if we are to believe Marlowe's history is truly "tragical."
"Brightness Falls" will be performed at the Greenbelt Arts Center, 123 Centerway, through Nov. 16. Showtime Fridays and Saturdays is 8 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Nov. 3 and 10. For tickets or information, call 301-441-8770.