The Shakespeare Theater Company inaugurates its magnificent new Sidney Harman Hall with two elaborate productions in repertory — the seldom-produced Christopher Marlowe plays “Tamburlaine” and “Edward II.” They assure an exhausting 10-week experience for the colossal company while requiring good-natured fortitude from auds taking in all six hours of the mini-Marlowe festival.
A curious selection by a.d. Michael Kahn for the theater’s debut, the Marlowe plays rep the troupe’s first mounting of works by Shakespeare’s contemporary, who wrote only seven plays before his death at age 29. Although a lesser playwright, Marlowe was an acknowledged influence on the Bard.
The first and last plays in Marlowe’s short canon, “Tamburlaine” and “Edward II” pair a brutal despot on the ascent and a weakling in decline. Both characters are so motivated by love that they wantonly defy the authority around them.
“Tamburlaine” features Avery Brooks as the bloodthirsty warrior out to conquer the world who leaves carnage in his wake. In “Edward II,” Wallace Acton portrays England’s 14th century king whose indiscreet affections for a male commoner bring down his rule.
Both works showcase Marlowe’s flair for eloquent dialogue and distinctive characters, but also his penchant for tedious and relentless plots. The Shakespeare Theater seeks to compensate with lavish productions festooned with luxurious costumes and, in “Edward,” an endless array of eye-popping props rising magically from below.
The extended pageantry of “Tamburlaine” is magnified by Kahn’s traditional direction. The saga features an incessant drumbeat of violence, adapted by Kahn from Marlowe’s two-part work and presented as a continual parade of characters opulently dressed by designer Jennifer Moeller.
Brooks is an inspired choice as the maniacal and loquacious commander anxious to slay his foes with word and sword. His character is unveiled in seemingly ceaseless waves of brutality, an exhausting role. Among others in the large cast, Mia Tagano is effective as the kidnapped queen who finds goodness in her rapacious leading man.
In “Edward II,” the more accessible of the two plays, director Gale Edwards has reached for a most audacious interpretation of the controversial history play. She has turned the young king’s court into a flamboyant playpen circa the Roaring’20s. Plumage abounds, and sometimes little else, in this male-only paradise void of any subtlety.
Acton is superb in an equally demanding lead role as the petulant, self-righteous monarch unabashedly defiant of moral convention. As he indulges his affections for the “dear sweet Gaveston” (played in over-the-top fashion by Vayu O’Donnell), the king contemptuously spurns the magnates who plot their revenge.
A terrific supporting cast includes Andrew Long as the most vindictive of nobleman and Deanne Lorette as the spurned queen.
“Edward II” features a passionate kiss between the two lovers in front of a shocked court, a historic first for Elizabethan theater. But it plays as comedy in the permissive 21st century, especially following a scene in which the two scantly clad lovers lounge as one on the royal throne.
Costume designer Murell Horton’s elaborate creations include large angel’s wings that occasionally adorn Gaveston both in life and death. Lee Savage’s set designs are a consistent delight, especially the artfully arrayed church candles that precede a gruesome climax.
Yet the undisputed star of both plays is the spacious new Harman Hall itself, with its flexible stage configurations, adjustable acoustics and myriad high-tech accoutrements. The venue is a welcome addition to D.C.’s burgeoning arts scene.