Elizabethan England wasn’t all sonnets and idyllic scenes. It was full of intrigue, danger, and shifting loyalties. One minute the Catholics were in power, the next the Anglicans. Spain was a dangerous rival, plots were rampant to overthrow the Virgin Queen Elizabeth, and in the middle of all this there was a flourishing of the arts and especially theater, the chosen venue of protest in any age.
While Shakespeare was celebrating the new idea of mankind as the center of the universe and his noble if flawed spirit, others, most noticeably Marlowe, were writing plays about larger-than-life conquerors and villains (Tamberlaine and The Jew Of Malta). Shakespeare was a symphony to Marlowe’s rock and roll. The new play at the Taper, School of Night is about Marlowe, with Shakespeare playing a secondary albeit important roll.
I first saw this play back in England in 1992 and have often wondered why it didn't make it to this side of the pond before now. Seeing this production, in an American context, I can see why. The play can be confusing and out of reach for much of the audience. In England the story was more accessible because of the audience's familiarity with English history. I actually enjoyed the show very much, but I was already familiar with the story.
Marlowe was an enfant terrible, an atheist, a believer in a Venetian form of republic, an avowed homosexual, and most importantly a spy. He had been recruited to be a spy in college, and being a rebel he readily agreed. He would later meet secretly with Sir Walter Raleigh and others in the so-called “School of Night” where the participants would spend their nights discussing any subject freely, especially atheism. This activity would come back to haunt both Raleigh and Marlowe, and while Raleigh ducked the controvery using his fame, money, and relationship with Elizabeth, Marlowe was brought down with a dagger in the eye.
The play is populated by interesting characters. There’s Thomas Kyd (Michael Bakkensen), the one-hit wonder author of Spanish Tragedy, and a friend to Marlowe who likewise met an early death because of his associations; the Walsinghams (Alicia Roper and Adrien La Tourelle), who are deeply enmeshed in the spy works of court; and the beautiful actress Rosalinda Menotti (Timberline Channel) and her cohort Shakespeare (well played by John Sloan), also members of the Walsingham household. Add to the mix the excitable Raleigh (Henri Lubatti), the menace of Ian Bedford, and terrific commedia work by Jon Monastero as Harlequin, and you have a combustible mix.
I enjoyed myself, but the play can be a bit exasperating as you try to understand the history. Marlowe as performed by Gregory Wooddell was exciting, dangerous, sexy, and unpredictable.
School of Night will play at the Mark Taper Forum until Dec 17th.