In Neil Bartlett’s fevered production of Christopher Marlowe’s “Dido, Queen of Carthage,” it’s hard to tell the difference between the gods and the mortals. Juno, Jupiter and Venus are extravagantly portrayed in their gilded, drag or operatic states, but so are earthbound characters such as Dido, Aeneas and Iarbas. All of these arch, desperate or flamboyant goings-on make for some serious scenery chewing (or would, if there were significant scenery in Rae Smith’s blank slate of a setting) and some entertaining moments of theatrical creativity and camp. But they also rob the doomed love story of its human tragedy.
The rarely produced 16th-century work, written by a 21-year-old playwright, is filled with a raw passion that lends itself to excess. It gets exactly that in a production by the former director of London’s Lyric Hammersmith that embraces both grandeur (some killer soliloquies played as arias) and vulgarity (jealous Juno is portrayed by Thomas Derrah in drag as a kind of Olympian Mae West). But the result is more curious than engaging. Bartlett presents the story of gods, generals and royals with a dispassionate arm’s length from a directorial Olympus of his own.
Based on “The Aeneid,” play follows the story of Aeneas as he, his young son and a small band of soldiers escape after the brutal sacking of his beloved homeland Troy. The play opens with Jupiter (a gold-painted Will LeBow as a Sugar Daddy god) lolling about with his shirtless, jeans-wearing Trojan shepherd/boytoy (a petulant Clark Huggins) as Aeneas’ mother, Venus, makes the case to save her son.
Aeneas and his crew are saved when his ship is tossed onto the shores of Northern Africa, where they are welcomed by that prosperous land’s queen, Dido (Diane D’Aquila), an independent figure who clearly needs no man to guide her.
But when Cupid’s arrow pierces her heart, Dido, too, realizes the power of love and falls for Aeneas, who succumbs to her formidable and obsessive force.
Just as a new reign seems to be in the offing, Jupiter decrees that Aeneas should leave Carthage and fulfill his destiny in founding Rome. He leaves Dido so heartbroken that she ends her life in a pit of flames as a series of desolate lovers follow her unto death.
D’Aquila uses her impressive instrument of a voice and powerful presence to make her Dido every inch a queen. But the portrayal is so grand and unto itself that it fails to connect to the aud’s heart — or, seemingly, her lover’s. Colin Lane’s Aeneas is also full of bravado, however tempered by the ravages of war, but as he struggles with his predetermined fate, there’s a shell-shocked disconnect that makes the character an out-of-sync player.
Karen MacDonald, however, manages to overcome the directorial conceit and achingly conveys a human reality as Dido’s sister, Anna. Performance artist John Kelly makes a mesmerizing, methodical Cupid, a stripped and sinewy emcee of sorts in this mythic “Carthage Cabaret.” (He also gets to nicely show off his countertenor in two haunting Elizabethan ballads set to music by Laura Jeppesen. Ongoing accompaniment is supplied by a trio of early-music performers on the viola de gamba.)
As great and tragic a love story as “Dido” is, this staging is too cool, presentational and ultimately unmoving. We may be left with the impression that human fate is in the hand of unseen forces, but sometimes it’s not a god, just the director.