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Tamburlaine, Parts I and II

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Merritt Janson and John Douglas Thompson cast.
Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
If you ever need an example to illustrate the adage "absolute power corrupts absolutely," take heed of Tamburlaine, the destructive juggernaut who is at the center of Christopher Marlow's sixteenth century play of the same title, a production of which is now on view as Tamburlaine, Parts I and II at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center.

Theatre For A New Audience, the producing company, and director Michael Boyd, who also edited the version of the script used in the performance, are to be commended for bravely taking on the play, which has not seen a major production in New York in 58 years. It is no walk in the park for either the actors or the audience, clocking in at three-and-a-half hours, including a 30-minute break between Part I and Part II. And, with a few exceptions that actually seem out of place, the tone is unrelentingly bleak.

The basic plot is this: Tamburlaine (John Douglas Thompson, always a powerful theatrical presence), a Central Asian warrior, decides to attack some city-state and demands that its king capitulate or face the consequences. The king declines and sets his soldiers on Tamburlaine's army. Tamburlaine goes on a rampage, destroying every man, woman, and child in his path, adds the crown to his growing collection (we actually see the pile of crowns late in this production), and moves on to the next city-state where the scenario, or a variation thereof, repeats.

With power comes the insatiable desire for more and more and more, until Tamburlaine has pretty much conquered all of the Ottoman Empire, Persia, and Central Asia. By the end of the play, and after more blood than you're likely to see in a dozen Jacobean revenge dramas, the only wound he has suffered personally has been self-inflicted, and that was done in order to make a point to his sons.

Mr. Boyd has generally staged the play in a straightforward way, although he has added a few effective touches. As an example, he has characters simply fall down dead when it is their turn to die, at which point blood spurts out of them or someone pours a bucket of blood on them. Sometimes, they stand up again or appear later in the same blood-covered costume, but as different characters, an innovative way of demonstrating the interchangeability of soldiers or monarchs.

Another tact is to inject some silliness into the proceedings, something that certainly does draw laughs of relief from the audience but which, perhaps, is not entirely in keeping with the tone of the play. So we have Paul Lazar, playing the King of Persia, acting like a buffoon or a Shakespearean clown. Or an actor will ask an audience member to hold a chicken leg or a theater program or a crown. I'm not sure that these add anything to the overall play, which is nothing if not a major cautionary tale about tyranny run amok.

The only soft spot Tamburlaine has in his heart is for Zenocrate (the excellent Merritt Janson), daughter of the ruler of Egypt, whom he abducts and later woos in a scene in which he also breaks the neck of a courier. Despite her initial trepidations, the two grow close, wed, and have three sons. When Zenocrate dies of natural causes, Tamburlaine expresses his grief by going on yet another killing spree so that all who survive will remember her in their mourning. In the end, as Tamburlaine is about to succumb to death himself, he bestows his crown to his son Amyras (Zachary Infante), who seems well prepared to take over where his father left off.

The acting is quite good all around, with Mr. Thompson and Ms. Janson doing particularly fine work as Tamburlaine and Zenocrate. Two others who really rise above the script and make their characters seem more human are Chukwudi Iwuji as Bajazeth and Patrice Johnson Chevannes as Zabina, emperor and empress of the Turkish Empire. There is a long sequence involving their capture and humiliation, during which he is kept in a cage and all but starved to death, and she becomes a slave in Tamburlaine's household. Both actors show themselves to be masters of the heightened language of the play, and add a depth of dignity and emotion to their depredation. Their final deaths are possibly the most disturbing of all because we have seen their humanity.

A special nod should go to percussionist Arthur Solari, who, perched high above the action, very effectively provides all manner of underscoring for the unfolding events.

In the final analysis, and although Tamburlaine, Parts I and II is no lark to sit through, some plays need to be seen because of their significance in the history of theater and because they are so rarely performed. This is one of those.

Tamburlaine, Parts I and II
Through December 21
Theatre for a New Audience at Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn
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