The rip-roaring, nostril-flaring historical melodrama stages a Gotham comeback — at the Public Theater, of all places! — with David Grimm’s “Kit Marlowe.” There’s a P.C. twist to the old-fashioned doublet-and-hose derring-do, of course: Marlowe’s general uproariousness and flagrant homosexuality gives the play a distinct contemporary edge. The resulting production, directed in exuberant, bold strokes by Brian Kulick, is an oddly layered cake, a combination of high-flown verbiage and lowdown intrigue, with a frosting of homoeroticism on top.
The play announces its bodacious attitude in the opening moments. The first line, whined by Sam Trammell as spoiled gent Thomas Walsingham, contains a familiar vulgarism referring to the female genitalia. It’s followed quickly by the arrival of Marlowe, in the person of Christian Camargo, clad only in his charisma. (The nude playwright-provocateur arrives on a rope swing, no less, leaving one to wince at the rope-burn possibilities.)
Grimm’s play suggests that various figures in Marlowe’s life were the inspiration for his great characters: Sir Walter Raleigh as Tamburlaine; Sir Francis Walsingham, close adviser to Queen Elizabeth, as Mephistopheles to Marlowe’s own Faustus. While today Marlowe’s fame resides in his accomplishments as a playwright, Grimm is far more interested in the sensational aspects of his extra-literary life.
The central drama derives from the murky rumors that Marlowe was a spy working for Walsingham to uncover treasonous plots against the queen. Grimm’s Marlowe, Cambridge-schooled but the son of a shoemaker, yearns for the kind of outsized achievement and gravity-defying career he’d celebrate in his plays: “a future writ in blazing flame,” as he says. Playwriting won’t cut it, he thinks, so he willingly binds himself in servitude to the powerful Sir Francis W., uncle of his Cambridge friend (and, it’s hinted off and on, once and future lover) Thomas.
Soon he’s off to France, where he infiltrates a monastery to smoke out a Catholic conspiracy to oust Elizabeth in favor of Mary, who’s languishing in the Tower. After a somewhat confused resolution to this episode (we do get to see a rare swordfight among monks, however), Marlowe pops back to London in time to discover his “Tamburlaine” is the toast of the town.
Marlowe’s just about ready to toss in his spy badge in favor of a career as celebrated playwright — actors are cuter than monks, after all, and he’s just gotten to meet his hero, Sir Walter Raleigh (Keith David) — but the elder Walsingham has other ideas. He demands that Marlowe honor his blood pact and continue to serve his ruthless ends.
Although they’re not too plausible in various particulars, Grimm’s imaginary intrigues have plenty of gleefully lurid elements. There’s a torture scene, a hanging and much knifeplay, as well as some druggy encounters with Sir Walter and his band of free-thinking associates. Throw in a few homoerotic encounters and you’ve got quite a show, even if it can’t be taken too seriously. Mimi Jordan Sherin’s often harsh lighting and the clanging metal sets of Narells Sissons suggest somewhat convincingly a world in which exposure and secrecy, entrapment and entitlement, are closely and confoundingly aligned.
The actors approach the material with various levels of sincerity. On the least earnest end of the spectrum would be Robert Sella’s ferociously campy turn as the Earl of Essex, Robert Deveraux (a misspelling for Devereux), a shameless sendup of the mincing court schemers once seen more regularly on stage and screen. David, by contrast, plays Raleigh with the same earnest gravity he brings to his Shakespearean performances.
Grimm’s writing allows for both possibilities. It’s unabashedly florid. “To be a man is not enough — I want divinity!” cries Marlowe early on. “To reach the sweet fruition of a godly crown; to be the author of myself and carve my fate in rock as one commandment everlasting: Thou Shalt Live!” Grimm is clearly an assiduous scholar of Elizabethan language, and he mimics it with impressive determination. But it’s essentially all highfalutin hokum — impassioned (and often windy) speechifying with a fancy antique sound.
Camargo, however, an actor of impressive confidence and skill, manages to infuse it with enough spirit to give it a modicum of integrity. His wild-eyed, unabashedly soulful performance is always engaging, and he makes Marlowe’s violent emotional swings relatively plausible. It’s hard to figure out just when Grimm’s Marlowe found the time to pen his immortal plays, but Camargo’s wired intensity supplies its own perfectly plausible answer to the question: He probably never slept.