Review: Tamburlaine

2014-12-02 18.58.29“How was that 3½ hour show?” was the first question my roommate asked me the other morning. The night before, I’d gone to see Tamburlaine, Parts 1 and 2, the Christopher Marlowe drama currently onstage at Theater for a New Audience. She called it “that 3½ hour show” because a few days earlier I’d bemoaned the running time to both of my roommates as I bought my tickets. (I don’t think I complained for 3½ hours, but it was definitely at least 3½ minutes.) Well, from now on I won’t refer to Tamburlaine as “the 3½ hour show,” because it deserves a lot better than that. In fact, this is one of the more dynamic, thrillingly staged, beautifully acted performances I’ve seen this fall.

It’s an exciting political and war story about Tamburlaine (John Douglas Thompson), a shepherd’s son turned brilliant warrior with an undying thirst for power and violence. No sooner has he seized a territory and humiliated its king than he is on to the next, more violent conquest. Tamburlaine is happy to cage kings, slaughter innocents, humiliate foes, cut out tongues, starve enemies, stab family members.

And yet I kinda liked the guy. That’s mostly to the fantastic performance from Mr. Thompson, who has energy, charisma, passion — and can speak quite a mouthful, to boot. He’s just one of an ensemble of terrific actors, including Paul Lazar as a series of hapless kings; Patrice Johnson Chevannes as a stately queen turned bitter slave; and Merritt Janson as Zenocrate, Tamburlaine’s wife.

As for that length. Well, yes, it is a long show, and I am a fidgety person. So there were moments when my mind wandered a bit. But for the most part, I was captivated. There are several reasons you shouldn’t let the length bother you either:

  • To begin with, you get a 30-minute intermission. So it’s not really as long as it seems.
  • Second, there’s the compelling nature of the piece, which keeps it moving at a good clip. Betrayal! Murder! Adventure! A lot like a Shakespeare play, actually. Similarly oversized characters; similarly dense language; squicky violence (a character gets a tongue cut out, which is equally as gross as losing an eyeball or two).
  • Then there’s the fantastic adaptation by Michael Boyd, who also directed the piece. Yes, it’s long, but if you can believe it, Tamburlaine uncut would require a seven-hour running time (according to this Wall Street Journal article). This adaptation has a razor-sharp edge to it; it really feels like two intense 90-minute plays, rather than one long, bloated drama.
  • And finally, there’s the production itself: Mr. Boyd’s staging is incredibly effective. It’s taut and quick-moving, and visceral as all get-out: Buckets of blood are splashed around liberally. More surprisingly, there’s a winning playfulness to the production: an actor strolls in chomping on a drumstick and gives the bone to an audience member; a Playbill is used as a prop to very funny effect, and so on. All these moments helped bring the play back to earth from its melodramatic heights. And made it all the more affecting for that.

So an excellent production of a show that rarely gets produced (the last major New York production was apparently in 1956!). It runs until December 21: I realize that few of us have enough free time during the holiday season to consider going to a 3½ hour show Tamburlaine, but you’re unlikely to regret it if you do.

My Grade: A-
Running Time: 3½ hours including 30 minute intermission
Ticket price: $31 (TDF)
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: 50/50

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