Theater Reviews

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Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles (Through Dec. 17)

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 amidst 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 may 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 may be a problem only for their students.

Whelan does capture the spasms of desperation which 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 very uncomfortable with each other 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 it 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 Sloane'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 on stage.

Tymberlee Chanel as an itinerant actor is occasionally 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.

The three main villains -- Ian Bedford, Mark H. Dold and Rob Nagle -- make the most of their opportunities as three really bad guys with fleeting moments of comedy and mock (and not-so-mock) violence.

Ilona Sekacz's music can't decide whether it wants to hearken back to the 16th century or just be very, very minimalist. A gratuitous commedia dell'arte episode at the beginning of Act II overstays the abilities of even Jon Monastero's inventive Harlequin.

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

Presented by Center Theatre Group in association with Mike Merrick and Edward Rissien
Playwright: Peter Whelan.
Director: Bill Alexander.
Set designer: Simon Higlett.
Costume designer: Robert Perdziola.
Lighting designer: Russell H. Champa.
Sound designer: Cricket S. Myers.
Cast: Michael Bakkensen, Ian Bedford, Tymberlee Chanel, Paula Christensen, Mark H. Dold, Johnny Giacalone, Michael Kirby, Adrian LaTourelle, Henri Lubatti, Jon Monastero, Rob Nagle, Richard Robichaux, Alicia Roper, John Sloan, Nick Toren, Gregory Wooddell.


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