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A thunder of drums and an African wail ushers in the world of Tamburlaine, a 14th-century shepherd turned warrior who exploited a feud among Persian royals to conquer most of the Middle East. Avery Brooks plays the title character with a basso rumble and a smile that fades only after life has had time to disappoint him. It takes a while.
A colleague suggested on the way out of the theater that a perfectly adequate plot synopsis might read “Tamburlaine conquers, conquers, conquers, conquers, conquers, conquers, conquers, conquers, dies.” That may leave out a nuance or two, but not many. The play’s pageantry leaves little room for dramatic conflict, and what there is remains mostly undramatized.
Which may be why Kahn’s staging invokes so many better known dramas. He turns the Empress of Turkey (Franchelle Stewart Dorn) into a proto-Mother Courage, sends soldiers clambering up ladders as if they were scaling the Alamo’s walls, and has Tamburlaine browbeat and manipulate three sons much the way Lear does three daughters. And if the playwright hasn’t provided the evening with a real climax, Kahn can at least fill the spot where it ought to be with a doozy of a climactic image: a fur-swathed Tamburlaine riding into battle in the medieval equivalent of a Humvee—a towering chariot pulled by three freshly subjugated kings.
That Kahn’s adaptation compresses two plays into three-plus hours doesn’t make any of this easier to follow. Major characters flit here and there, then disappear, while minor characters make minor impressions. There are projected titles to tell you where you are, and for patrons really intent on keeping track of a plot, there’s a synopsis in the playbill.
Mostly though, you just have to concede that Marlowe didn’t know much about play construction when he wrote Tamburlaine. Happily, he subsequently learned by doing. And by putting his first and last plays together in repertory, Shakespeare Theatre is offering a comparative object lesson in what he learned.
Take the scene at the start of Tamburlaine’s second half, in which there’s a king in a cage and a guard nearby with a key. Shakespeare would almost certainly have played with the situation, but Marlowe is content in his first produced play to let the scene stand as narrative. If you help me escape, I’ll reward you, whispers the regal captive. Sure, replies the guard, and unlocks the cage.
Five years later, in Edward II, Marlowe placed another king in jail but had learned to let things play out more intriguingly. King Edward is agonizing over kingship while sitting in his cell, and the bishop who has the power to free him doesn’t just do so when asked; he insists that Edward first sacrifice his crown. The monarch knows he’ll be a dead man once stripped of his title, but he gives up the crown anyway, then steals it back, then challenges the bishop to wrest it from him (knowing full well that he won’t), then finally gives it up again in purest despair. And after all that, he’s left there in prison, awaiting further torment.
The tension during this sequence at Harman Hall is exquisite, the scene so crisp and modern in its conception and execution that you may find yourself marveling at how Marlowe has, in a few brisk moments of philosophical and physical incarceration, precisely articulated the existential dilemma that would fascinate Sartre and Beckett some four centuries later. Clean, eerily prescient, emotionally true, dramatically apt, and all the while, achingly poetic.
What might the man have done if he’d lived to be 35?