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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.)



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.


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.



Also adding to the visual excitement of Kahn’s production are the choreographed movements of individual players (Avery Brooks excels at this) and the cast (especially the fight scenes) as well as the use of four large drum heads mounted on the stage’s balcony that provide a royal vibration to key scenes including the opening. Recorded music with a Middle Eastern, early music sound added enticing atmosphere. As her seatmate poet Miles Moore said, and so the Dresser enthusiastically concurs, Kahn’s Tamburlaine matches or exceeds any production mounted in New York City or London.

With such words and phrases as “the beating heart will break,” “break us,” “under the breastbone of the beloved,” “syllables over the winding sheet,” “caught by the painter in all time,” “furious joy is gathering the kingdoms,” Rosemary Winslow’s poem “After the Seven Acts of Mercy” eloquently summons the language and images of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine.


This... This, ... we want, she thinks,
desperate, ignorant, thinking
the beating heart will break, believing
it will break us, believing
it is it— not that we are still
to be found under the breastbone of the beloved.

Arriving in our darkness,
salve syllables over the winding sheet,
behind the eyes,
a dream of angels walking the stair,
or tumbling through cloud,
carries us with them,
past commiseration,
and the heart beats mightily
in the crickets’ summons,

after the imperious sun,
when the slide of light breaks open the attention
and we are taken out of ourselves,
past the careful stigmata,
to a lake where a red girl in a hammock
stitches words from wreckage
under two maples, unmerited, under the hold of heaven

and she stops, quickened by an absence
of language: buttercups in the warm grass,
the twick twick twick of a goldfinch,
a crow’s blue black, a timbre of leaves—
then remembers the torch-lit street,
its chiaroscuro of beggars and rich men’s sleeves
in the stunned eyes of a young woman
giving her breast to her jailed father
under the smile of Caravaggio’s Christ.

Light of night, light that folds out
from her, and on her, falling
from the smiling calm, mother and child
above, torch light thrown in flame-shape
down her face, throat, breast
where the green dress is parted—
deep heart
caught by the painter in all time

where we walk every day and do not notice
the rich the poor the quiet lake
the goldfinch the grass, afraid to walk in splendor

unless turning from time to time
to each other in acts of love
almost unendurable—
for we are not done, we darkly, hardly
able to come where no love is
and love’s force insistent—soft here now —
while all around us furious joy is gathering the kingdoms.

by Rosemary Winslow
from Green Bodies

Photos by Carol Rosegg

Copyright © 2007 Rosemary Winslow


Comments (1)

Rosemary Winslow:

Thank you, Karren, for including my poem in your delightful review. I love the voice--language, humor, personalism--and read several of your other reviews. John loves the visuals too--the mag has a great designer, he says. I concur!

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