Skirting Marlowe's third rail

Tamburlaine the Great, Part I

By Christopher Marlowe
Directed by Jeff Dailey
American Theatre of Actors
314 West 54th St. (581-3044)
Non-union production (closes Sept. 28)
Review by John Michael Koroly

Christopher Marlowe's Elizabethan docudrama follows the eponymous Scythian (in real life Mongol) warrior-king through a parade of conquests, showcasing his ferocious courage, brilliant poetic rhetoric, and often shocking and repulsive ruthlessness and cruelty. (He has not yet, though, become the virtually proto-Hitlerian figure of the second part of Marlowe's epic.)

Jeff Dailey's production for the American Theatre of Actors was not a bad evening at all. It moved briskly with some standout performances. Unfortunately, though, it remained a shallow reading of the text, too infrequently tapping into the thematic marrow that could make for high tragedy instead of into the surface melodrama of the action.

Generally, the blank verse was not well-served by the cast of 14. In the crucial title role, Tony Sicuso had the right Nautilused build to suggest the imposing physical power of the man, but his vocalization recurrently bordered on the anemic. There was no fire from Heaven (or elsewhere) here. Tamburlaine proclaims himself "the scourge of God," but any such moral terror was missing from Sicuso's readings. As Tumburlaine himself might put it, he "menace[d] more than can perform."

The true star of the production turned out to be Patrick Hancock in a dual role. As Mycetes, the King of Persia, whose overthrow begins Tamburlaine's bloody crusade, Hancock made the wonderful choice of playing the monarch as a fey fop, his wimpy readings making the thunder in the King's dialogue hilariously ironic. Then, as Bajazeth, the Emperor of Turkey, he morphed into a figure of genuine drama, spiritually substantial and of formidable guile. He just may be the next in a long line of stars A.T.A. has produced.

Also of note was Michael Thurston's sly turn as a Persian government offical and his volatile moral rage as the Soldan, Pharao of Egypt, whose daughter, Zenocrate, Tamburlaine has claimed for his bride. In that role, Clare Tucker-Brown was well-spoken but wasn't up to the internal rollercoaster demanded by the character's first rejecting, then amorally embracing, then revolting in horror from the great warrior-king's embraces. In a lesser role, Tracie Black's sexy movements as a court dancer helped set a wickedly willful atmosphere at work in Tamburlaine's inner circle.

Otherwise, the cast proved quite forgettable, however competent.

Director Dailey staged the work with a quick enough flow, especially noteworthy as the two acts were split up into 45 and 90 minutes, respectively. He also made quietly eerie atmospheric use of the "urban amphitheater" quality of A.T.A.'s courtyard performance space; utilizing the fire escape on the adjoining building as Tamburlaine's podium, for instance. The uncredited costumes and lighting were remarkably resourceful in setting the tone and in setting a relatively solid sense of period. He also used a nice mix of music, trumpet fanfares alternating with an atonal modernist piece by Varese to score the battle scenes. He staged the many swordfights in a robotically arthritic manner, though.

Ultimately, this production should be taken for what it is: a middling-to-fairly good mounting, lucidly staged and spoken, and a good intro to the work itself, however lacking in dramatic depth.

Box Score:
Writing 2
Directing 1
Acting 1
Set 1
Costumes 2
Lighting/Sound 2