“Tamburlaine” by Marlowe is exciting 16th-century take on modern military state

By Lucy Komisar

Is this yet another depiction of the brutality and cruelty of rulers who, so full of themselves, wreak havoc on anyone who doesn‘t bow down? Not quite. It‘s an early anti-war play. Plus  §a  change.

John Douglas Thompson as Tamburlaine, photo Gerry Goodstein.

Except, when John Douglas Thompson is the evil guy, you are drawn by his brilliant performance as well as fascination at what makes this real 14th-century character tick and why those around him succumb. (The play was inspired by the life of Central Asian emperor, Timur the lame. Or Tamerlane. But plenty of others followed.) And at the fact that Christopher Marlow wrote this in the 16th century. Not much progress in half a millennium.

The stylized often thrilling staging by director Michael Boyd takes us far from the 1500s, with pails of red liquid sloshed over victims to signify their deaths. Characters march forward from backstage in choreographed movement, and some figures are attacked behind scrims.

King Mycetes of Persia (Paul Lazar) comes onstage eating a chicken leg. He wipes his face on an aide‘s coat. He is a gross, witless fellow in cargo pants, another argument against monarchy.

Tamburlaine (John Douglas Thompson), an arrogant lower class guy, is a shepherd who is more clever than his “betters,” a champion manipulator. Showing gold objects and women he has captured, he persuades Theridamus (Andrew Hovelson) to leave the king‘s court to join him. Some glitter and cash is still all it takes to get “loyalists” to change sides, isn‘t it?

Thompson is perfect as Tamburlaine the conqueror who ruthlessly engages in a daisy chain of killing to achieve domination.

Merritt Janson as Zenocrate and John Douglas Thompson as Tamburlaine, photo Gerry Goodstein.

The curiosity is why one of Tamburlaine‘s captives, Zenocrate (Merritt Janson, very good as the tough daughter of the Egyptian king), falls in love with him. And why she is the only one he loves. A slight spark of humanity even in the most brutal?

The siege of Constantinople pits Tamburlaine against the great Turkish emperor and general Bajazeth (Chukwudi Iwuji) and his tough wife Zabina (Patrice Johnson Chevannes). The challenger‘s military victory makes him king of Africa.

Chukwudi Iwush as Bajazeth, Turkish emperor, imprisoned, photo Gerry Goodstein.

We are reminded how such victors behave. Bajazeth is placed in a metal cage, which conjures up the bamboo tiger cages used to abuse prisoners by the American side in the war in Vietnam. He is starved while Tamburlaine enjoys a banquet. His wife is shackled. (Iwuji and Chevannes are powerful, excellent.)

As attacks continue, three virgins who come to plead for mercy are murdered, their heads impaled on pikes. Behind a scrim. Boyd does a superb job of representing horrors in an artistic way that lets you comprehend them intellectually without getting squeamish.

Tamburlaine plans to cut off water in a siege of Greece. Lusting after scepters and crowns, he plans to be general of the world. Lots of subplots ensue.

The defeated, photo Gerry Goodstein.

But moving right along, the Governor of Babylon (Saxon Palmer) wants to make peace with Christendom. We see him in modern suit and tie. But the conqueror doesn‘t give in. And he adds to his victories and his victims

Tamburlaine is training his sons to be warriors, and when one doesn‘t want war, he calls him a coward and a traitor, an effeminate brat.

The Governor of Babylon, now in a black leather coat, has troops holding rifles. The past segues into the present reminding us of the bloody trajectory of tyrants.

The Theatre for a New Audience, in its impressive new home across from BAM, has produced yet another modern take on a classic that ought to persuade theater goers to ford  cross the river.

Tamburlaine.” Written by Christopher Marlowe, edited and directed by Michael Boyd. Theatre for a New Audience, at Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY. 866-811-4111.  Opened Nov 16, 2014, closes Dec 21, 2014. 11/30/14.

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