Michael Kahn’s Tamburlaine
Having rescued a pair of unused tickets to the January 6, 2008 matinee performance of Washington, DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Tamburlaine by Christopher Marlowe, the Dresser had no intention to pick up her pen or apply fingers to her computer keyboard. However, the production moved her so greatly that she could not keep herself from a few comments in the hope that others will not overlook the work of director Michael Kahn. (Helas, the show is closed now.)
OPERATIC IN ITS ENORMITY
Although Marlowe’s play is highly melodramatic and populated with an extremely large number of characters (very operatic in its enormity), the Dresser was excited to get the opportunity to experience Marlowe’s poetry on stage. After seeing the show, the Dresser realizes that without Kahn’s exquisite direction that included painterly scenes (the players moved into beautiful tableau vivant moments constantly throughout the scenes), the outstanding selection of cast (Avery Brooks as Tamburlaine is a tour de force knowing how to be alternately brutal, tender, comic, raging), and the pageantry of costumes and props, the poetry and aphorisms of Marlowe’s first play would have been hard to communicate effectively.
One famous line that illustrates how hard it is to deliver Marlowe’s text is “Accursed be he that first invented war.” The line belongs to Mycetes, who is King of Persia. He is a poor leader and his brother Cosroe is looking to depose him. Floyd King plays Mycetes as an effeminate fop who just barely understands the insults his brother lobs at him. Costume designer Jennifer Moeller has dressed Mycetes in all red, including pointed slippers with heels. Mycetes sports what modern audience might call a Daliesque mustache. The opportunity to depose Mycetes comes with the rise of Scythian shepherd Tamburlaine who intends to conquer the world around him. A melodramatic chase scene ensues where an unprotected Mycetes suddenly stops the action and delivers “Accursed be he that first invented war.” It is an oddly comic and tragic moment and makes the Dresser understand why her friend Ernie Benjamin who she encountered by chance at intermission said that he found Tamburlaine overly melodramatic and preferred Marlowe’s Edward II which was also in production at the DC’s Shakespeare Theatre.
OF WAR AND LOVE
Briefly the story of Tamburlaine focuses on the surprising success of a lowly shepherd who conquers what today’s audience would recognize as Iran, parts of North Africa (Morocco and Algeria) and the Middle East. Tamburlaine’s landscape, brutality, and clash with Moslem countries give currency to today’s American audience who live with involvement in brutal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that impact relations with Iran and other Moslem countries.
Tamburlaine is also a set of powerful love stories that shake the modern day viewer. Mia Tagano as the captured daughter of the Sultan of Egypt Zenocrate presents no cardboard character. When Zenocrate falls in love with the initially menacing Tamburlaine (her captor), Tagano gives us a woman with complicated feelings. We see Zenocrate wait for Tamburlaine to make her his queen, plead for her father’s life, revel in the company of her three sons, and then die young from some unnamed disease. Marlowe sets Zenocrate in opposition to a character introduced later in the play—Olympia, the wife of the fallen Captain of Balsera, who is captured just after she has wrenchingly killed her son and before she can commit suicide. Theridamas (one of Tamburlaine’s trusted men) falls in love with this strong woman, but she won’t have him and tricks him into killing her. Amy Kim Waschke as Olympia pierced the Dresser’s heart when she cried out after slaying her son. Franchelle Stewart Dorn as Zabina, Empress of Turkey, provides a memorable performance both as the feisty royal wife
and the captured and humiliated slave put on a leash outside her husband’s cage.