Judging by the first night crowd’s intense perusal of the program’s background essays, a quick Elizabethan era brush-up is something of a must for Peter Whelan’s dark, dense, difficult “The School of Night.”
Intellectual thriller, centering on the still-mysterious death of playwright and gadfly Christopher Marlowe, receives a handsome Mark Taper Forum production from Royal Shakespeare Company vet Bill Alexander. But the historically clueless and clued-in alike might get more out of the proceedings were it not for some central miscasting and direction lacking nuance.
While plague and intrigue rage in the English capital circa summer 1592, Marlowe (Gregory Wooddell) and his theatrical entourage are gaily occupied with court gossip, mockery and the odd dalliance at the suburban home of patron Thomas Walsingham (Adrian LaTourelle). The outrageous, lightly campy “Kit,” as Marlowe’s known, is one of those Merry Prankster types fecklessly riding on personal charisma, which of course signals his eventual doom to any moderately alert audience.
Sexuality aside, Kit’s back already possesses a painted target in a realm dominated by real or professed religiosity, of which he’s so contemptuous he makes Bill Maher sound like the archbishop of Canterbury. (Opening prayer to his personal deity “Dog” — spell it backwards — explicitly evokes his “Doctor Faustus,” one of many dramatic references sure to go over the uninitiated’s heads.)
Marlowe is proudest of his former membership in the School of Night, a sort of freethinkers’ Joy Luck Club in which many of England’s brightest lights met under cover of darkness to debate the deepest mysteries — the more heretical or treasonous the viewpoint, the better.
But people in high places covet the club’s roster, and in a time when virtually everyone is employed to spy for one faction or another, this sophisticated scribe but political fathead must walk a tightrope to avoid rack and ruin.
Whelan’s elaborate plots, counterplots, disguises and double-crosses, set against Simon Higlett’s ominously imposing settings and Russell H. Champa’s suggestive lighting, would compel more attention if Wooddell weren’t turning Marlowe into such an insufferable bore. To his great swaths of self-indulgent monologue requiring a precisely tuned instrument, Wooddell brings a one-note hunting horn, attacking speech after speech with the same blaring bravado.
For all his flirtation, this Marlowe comes across as relatively sexless — a legit but dull choice, at odds with the shocking reputation putting him at risk — and his reckless attacks on royalty and orthodoxy lack any shred of vulnerability. If he doesn’t fear for himself on some level, how can we?
Remarkably, Alexander doesn’t direct his actors to worry about security when expressing dangerous views. A prison cell argument, with Kit and Sir Walter Ralegh (Henri Lubatti) bellowing their School of Night confidences for the delectation of any passerby, is particularly damaging to the pervasive menace Ilona Sekacz’s fretful music works hard to suggest. Overtaxed lung power ensures every word reaches the last row, but an air of genuine terror never gets half so far.
Several thesps’ attack is as strong as the roles they’re assigned, especially Alicia Roper’s astringent, no-nonsense Audry Walsingham and the trio of conspirators (Ian Bedford, Mark H. Dold and Rob Nagle) playing both of Marlowe’s ends against the middle. John Sloan’s actor-for-hire is a little callow but a keen observer of others’ follies, as the plot eventually requires he be.
Alas, as play’s exotic romantic interest, Tymberlee Chanel sports a shaky Italian accent and an even shakier sense of whether scenes are to be understood as serious or comic.
In attempting to sum up the intellectual commerce of an era, as well as relate it to the struggles between liberal thinkers and conservative power brokers in our own, Whelan has probably bitten off more than one dramatic work can chew. But the task is redoubled in difficulty when efforts to establish a varied and interesting, here-and-now reality fall short.