'The School of Night'

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After a good deal of expository explanation (i.e., you don't have to know anything about Elizabethan history because the characters spend at least a half-hour explaining who, what, where and why), Peter Whelan's 1992 play about the madly passionate (or vice versa) playwright Christopher Marlowe and his equally loony friends and enemies trying to survive amid political, ecclesiastical and literary turmoil during the death throes of Elizabethan England lumbers into action.

The biggest problem Whelan has with "The School of Night" is describing precisely what superhuman power and glory Marlowe expects to attain through his embracing of superficially atheistic dark spirits. Although Whelan's Marlowe flashes his knife and sword around a bit, it's nothing like the violence with which the characters of Marlowe's actual plays deport themselves.

Scholars and high school teachers might legitimately complain that Marlowe's magnificent, poetic language is too sparingly represented during the remarkably fast-moving three-hour evening and that Whelan inadequately describes whether Shakespeare was better than Marlowe or was just a literary thief, but that might be a problem only for their students.

Whelan does capture the spasms of desperation that seize the seeming cabal of doomed and threatened dramatists as they careen through history's obscure plots and even more obscure subplots. If Whelan's version of Marlowe were intended to be a James Bond of the the late 16th century, however, it misses the mark by a wide margin.

Director Bill Alexander gives the large, handsomely costumed cast — playing a scurrilous lot to their heart's content — lots to do. The problem is, they seem uncomfortable with one another physically — unless they're explicitly and usually clumsily demonstrating some aspect of their sexual appetite — and so the stage just seems crowded. Besides, the main characters have so much more to do than the minor ones that the latter tend to make sure their infrequent chances will be noticed disproportionately by the audience.

Gregory Wooddell's Marlowe commands the stage as he must, as flowery, flamboyant and pretty as can be, with an excellent ability to change instantly from a charming, lighthearted, devil-may-care fellow into a more platitudinous gloom-and-doom monger.

His fellow playwrights are an uneven lot. Michael Bakkensen's Thomas Kyd is uniformly morose, but John Sloan's Tom Stone has a magnetic aura about him overriding the fact that his character turns out to be a lightweight, thoroughly unconvincing version of Shakespeare.

The most interesting acting is done by Henri Lubatti and Adrian LaTourelle, perhaps because the characters they play (Walter Raleigh and Thomas Walsingham, respectively) are by far the most complicated, conflicted personalities onstage.

Tymberlee Chanel as an itinerant actor is diverting but is hampered by an intermittent, oddly Eastern European version of an Italian accent. Alicia Roper as Walsingham's powerful wife often seems on the verge of real dramatic glory but is similarly hampered by a heavy-looking costume that at critical points seems to sap her energy.

For many theatergoers intrigued by the chance to see Shakespeare and his buddies without all of that Elizabethan poetry stuff, the effort that writer, cast and crew make to bring an enormously exciting time to life will be justification for venturing downtown to see how it was when the English language came to flower amid the riotous behavior of great rulers and poets and lesser heroes and villains. (partialdiff)
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