"Oh monstrous villainy" cries one of the characters in Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, a cry that is a distressingly apt description of The Marlowe Project's production of this rarely seen 16th-century epic.
The fourth in a projected plan to present all seven of Marlowe's plays, the plot of The Jew of Malta is far too complex to detail here, although the machinations of the uniformly evil characters are fascinating to watch. And Marlowe's unfamiliar poetry is marvelously lucid, laced with a cynical humor and a world view that is noticeably darker than his more popular contemporary, William Shakespeare.
Judging from the extensive program notes, director Jeff Dailey has a thorough understanding of Marlowe's play and a firm grasp on its grim throughline. However, judging from the actual production, this understanding is merely academic, and got lost in the transition from page to stage. The production never took on a tone, energy, or style of its own, settling for a certain high-school studiousness that was at frustrating odds with the furious action of Marlowe's imaginative, corrosive script. In addition, there seemed to be no attempt to master the tricky rhythms of Marlowe's Elizabethan speech patterns, substituting a cacophonous mixture of shouting, growling, muttering, and whispering that betrayed a cast unprepared for the fiendishly difficult material they were asked to interpret.
As Barabas, the titular Jew of Malta, the elfin Bart Shattuck used his mellifluous voice to race through his lines, under the apparent assumption that speed is an effective disguise for an inability to meet the overwhelming demands of this huge role. A valiant, if ultimately unsuccessful, struggle that deserved applause for the sheer guts in taking it on. Of the 12-member ensemble, only Mario Prado, Dana Gottlieb, and Eszter Biro displayed any real connection to the material or facility with the language, and with a firmer hand to guide them would no doubt have made a greater impact. As for the rest of the cast, the less said the better, except that an impressive list of credits in a program bio does not a classical actor make.
To call the production black box would be an overstatement. There were no set, few props, and an absolutely primitive lighting scheme that kept half of the actors in darkness, unseen but unfortunately heard. Marian Shelley's costumes had a simple period flair, in some instances giving the evening its only bit of color.
When even New York's major professional companies seem to be avoiding Marlowe's canon, the dedication of Mr. Dailey and his Marlowe Project becomes all the more noble. And with the plethora of Shakespeare productions running unchecked (see recent issues of oobr for competing Macbeths, Winter's Tales and Midsummer Night's Dreams), the opportunity to experience the uniquely different voice of a lesser-known rival would seem to make an effective case for a Marlowe resurgence. But sadly, while the spirit was obviously willing, the flesh was unfortunately a weak, quivering mess.
(Also featuring Morgan Demel, Ryan Edwards, Gabriel
Portuondo, Terry Schappert, Kelly Ann Sharman,
John Squire, Bert Steinmannis, Travis Taylor.
Fight choreography by Terry Schappert.)
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Copyright 1999 Doug DeVita