At the outset, Marlowe is ascendant, his plays produced, his purse full. Shakespeare has had a few successful poems but is still peddling his early dramatic works. He is beset with money problems and a nagging wife (Laura Singleton) he does not love (and vice versa). He shares a mistress (Maggie Murphy as Emilia Lanier) with Marlowe, a fact unknown to him at first, though the audience sees her with both men early in the show. Shakespeare is, in a word, desperate, so he hires Robert Poley (David Wassilik) and his dogsbody, Ingram Frizer (Todd Moore) to kill Marlowe, which he believes would clear the way onto the stage for him.
This plot seems considerably less nefarious when we get to know the prancing, mincing, taunting bag of wind that is Chris Marlowe. He is a drunkard and a pederast, though the occasional woman, such as the abovementioned Emilia arouses his carnal desire. He is accused of blasphemy and corruption of the youth (well, if it was good enough for Socrates. . . ). Marlowe is shown as one big walking id. Shakespeare, on the other hand, is a more sensitive sort. He loves his mistress (and dismisses that Southampton issue as a fluke; i.e., the Duke was his sponsor, so well, a poet’s gotta do what a poet’s gotta do).
Wassilik is all steely eyed menace in the role of enforcer. He believes he has God on his side, and few are more dangerous than those who think they are carrying out the Almighty’s divine will on earth. His character’s humor comes from Ingram, an unreconstructed doofus whose accent makes it hard to figure out whether he’s from the Queen’s England or the Queens in Brooklyn. Accents are all over the place, but that’s not a serious problem here because the whole thing is played so broadly. Those characters who are bad are very, very bad, and those who are good. . . well, actually no one is good.
Robert A. Mitchell has drawn terrific performances from the whole cast. In addition to those already cited, Reynard Fox appears as civil servant/spy Henry Maunder who’s been sent to root out blasphemers and whatnot, a job he takes very seriously in a revival preacher-y sort of way. In fact, he is an ex-beadle who comes to rue the career change. Each scene in the play is necessary and precise. Shakespeare’s encounters with hit wife, the dissatisfied Anne Hathaway, are both shocking and satisfying. Mistress Shakespeare is a woman so ruthless she’d have preferred killing their firstborn conceived out of wedlock than marry its feckless father who is years younger than she and a terrible provider. She will eventually get Will’s balls in a vise grip.
Jim Hurley as Philip Henslow deserves a paragraph all his own, and here it is. He plays the owner of the theatre currently producing Marlowe’s Tambourlaine the Greate as indicated by a drop that dominates the back wall of the simple set. He is a practical man: He has to fill his house to make money, and Marlowe’s slashers bring in the crowds. He advises Shakespeare to try to think of some original ideas and to give the people what they want: blood and guts instead of silly comedies (they’re specifically discussing The Comedy of Errors) and love stories. Henslow is remarkable every time he’s on the stage, perhaps never more so than when he is having his head repeatedly held in a bowl of water by Maunder’s minion (Renaissance waterboarding?) while Maunder demands knowledge of Marlowe. His doublespeak “confession” would do Abbott and Costello proud.
Probably the most sympathetic character here is Emilia, for all her wanton ways. She is a “respectable” married woman who enjoys her boys on the side, but her love and concern for Shakespeare are obvious. She rushes to tell him some information she manages to pick up while hiding “behind the arras” and pleads with him to give up this foolish plot for fear he will end up at the end of a rope. But, things don’t turn out that way at all.
Playwright Charles Marowitz has captured the essence of Shakespeare’s iambs right down to the slant rhymes, bawdy wordplay, and clever convolutions (“The cause of plagues is sin; the cause of sin is plays, so plays are the cause of plagues” is an example.) The set by Nic Uhlmansiek is itself a three-sided black box surrounded by draperies and making various uses of a bench, table and chair. Renee Sevier-Monsey’s dramatic lighting adds to the overall effect, and Perkins is also credited with sound design, which I found occasionally heavy-handed, but perhaps it was intended to be ironic. Teresa Doggett’s costumes look rich and bring some jewel tones to the drab environs.
In the end, however, this is a story of Shakespeare and Marlowe, and Perkins and Wolbers play them to a fare-thee-well. They have great chemistry with each other and their contrasts work to the benefit of both. Languid and louche, Wolbers is a confident man about town. Uptight and unsure, Perkins gives us a character that manages to be both reprehensible and sympathetic. These are the best performances I’ve seen from these two young actors, and I can’t recommend this show highly enough.