Friday, January 23, 2015
The spectacular production of Christopher Marlowe’s Elizabethan tragedy, Tamburlaine, presently on view at Detroit’s Imperial Theater splendidly inaugurates the twenty-million dollar restoration of this grand old hall. Built during the glory days of Detroit’s reign as auto-maker to the world, the Imperial Theater’s interior is riot of baroque ornamentation, plush velvet seating and ornate mirrored lounges blessed with outstanding acoustics and sight-lines. For more than 25 years, the gutted shell of the great auditorium served as a downtown car park. Vehicles were sheltered from the weather beneath the frescos of the structure’s vast coffered ceiling, rows of parked coars overlooked by cathedral-like windows of increasingly decrepit and shattered stained glass. It was not uncommon, I am told, for torso-sized chunks of terra-cotta bas relief to fall from above and damage the vehicles parked on the sloping concrete floor beneath the great proscenium, once the tallest and deepest stage in the United States. Lovingly restored to its former grandeur, no better show could be imagined to newly christen this great hall than Tamburlaine as presented by the touring company of the National Theater of Wales. It is to be devoutly wished that this renaissance of the Imperial Theater will signal a renaissance of the arts scene in Detroit as well.
I attended this show with my father, Professor-Emeritus Joseph Keegan, one of the world’s foremost scholars of the life, works, and times of Christopher Marlowe. Like most dedicated Marlowe enthusiasts, my father scorns the theory that Shakespeare’s plays were written by the subject of his studies. Marlowe singlehandedly invented the tragedy performed in blank verse, (that is, iambic pentameter) and my father denigrates the notion that this Elizabethan poet and spy murdered in 1593 had a hand in composing the plays later attributed to the Swan of Avon. "Marlowe is better than Shakespeare," my Dad often proclaims, and, indeed, on the evidence of Tamburlaine, at least in this present production, there is more than a little truth to that proposition.
Tamburlaine is a history play that chronicles the conquests and ultimate doom of a charismatic tyrant from the Middle East. In this age of insurgencies in Chechnya, the Caucasus, and Afghanistan, there is more than a little resonance to this tale. Indeed, the penultimate scene in which Tamburlaine burns the Holy Qu’ran and defies God with terrible consequences may make modern audiences uncomfortable and has aroused controversy in London during performances by this Company. Marlowe’s poetry is clearer and less idiosyncratic than Shakespeare’s verse and easier for modern audiences to appreciate. The author limns clear and compelling characters and his plays have elegantly simple, but gripping, plots. Tamburlaine traces the trajectory of its title character through idealistic ambition, tyranny, fatal arrogance, and, then, bloody and calamitous catastrophe. Marlowe’s verse has a soaring eloquence that ennobles his characters and the play is blessed with God’s own abundance of startling and exotic details. In the production performed at The Imperial, the first half of the play is a gorgeous, operatic chronicle. The second half of the show is more surreal, spanning the globe and human history, for examples of the sort of hubris and pride shown by Marlowe’s doomed hero. Decor and sets after the intermission refer to Columbus’ discovery of the New World, the destruction of the space-shuttle, the Challenger, and the physicist Oppenheimer’s work on the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, the atom bomb – all examples of human courage, ingenuity, and, ultimately, fatal arrogance. Although this sounds a bit gimmicky in this show, the conception works.
Throughout the production, the actors from National Theater of Wales, the alma mater of Richard Burton, mouth their lines with wonderful aplomb, brilliant diction, and a superb sense for the musical qualities of the verse. Particularly noteworthy is Anthony Y– , wonderfully athletic and imperious in the title role. Other stand-outs in the uniformly excellent cast are Melinda D– as Olympia and the exceptionally handsome William T– as Mycetes.
Be warned: this show is extravagantly bloody and the seas of ketchup-colored gore displayed on stage are mirrored in the rich red-velvet decor deployed throughout the show – a color scheme that sometimes produces the effect that the actors are performing inside a vast human body. Furniture and trappings often resemble internal organs and the characters wear crimson sashes that suggest saber-wounds across their bodies. A ballet in the first part of the play featuring gladiatorial combat segues from duel into homo-erotic lovemaking, a nod to Marlowe’s avowedly gay sensibility. Just before the intermission, a procession of animals crossing the stage is caught in an ambush and through some trick of lighting and special effects appears to be butchered en route to their destination, the beasts becoming shaggy with arrows and lances thrust into them until they collapse in their death throes. This scene was so horribly effective that several people in the audience left in disgust. The tension was broken, however, when the lights came up and the, apparently, wounded animals rose from their puddles of blood, bowed to the audience, and, even, performed a sort of circus trot off-stage – something that reassured the spectators that, in fact, no animals were wounded or, otherwise, harmed in the production of this show.
After intermission, the play explores strange and deep waters and the spectacle becomes more than slightly unnerving. At the beginning of the second part of the show, a crowd of mostly African-American children from the neighborhood storms into the auditorium, occupies the front of the stage, and seems to threaten the audience with gang-inspired gestures. Middle-aged women, apparently, planted in the audience rise from their seats, climb onto the stage, and tend to the hostile and agitated youth. The director, Sir Edward M—, then, orchestrates a wild tempest at sea, literally sweeping the audience from their seats with colossal waves and thunderous wind and lightning. My father and I had to retreat from our seats on the floor of the auditorium to higher ground, plush balconies overlooking the stage. The tempest concludes with a sunrise over the green and mountainous seas that is one of the most wonderful things that I have ever seen in the theater, a symphony of color and light perfectly mirroring Marlowe’s mighty lines. Galaxies whirl overhead as the Space-Shuttle Challenger explodes and the columns of mushroom clouds rise like pillars marking the rim of this round globe. Then, we are shown a great chasm, a green gorge from which there arises a golden-colored adobe structure, seemingly modeled on the great pueblo at Taos, New Mexico. The upper reaches of the gorge are studded with silos, huge featureless granaries that are apparently filled with icy cold water. As Tamburlane’s army, dressed as Spanish conquistadors, approaches this El Dorado, the granaries rupture drowning most of the the invading force under cascades of mercurial, silver water. This tour de force of theatrical ingenuity concludes with a solemn funeral procession, black clad monks carrying long tapers as they bear the body of the hero to his sepulcher. By this stage in the production, the audience was scattered, small groups of onlookers gathered together to superintend of obsequies underway on stage and winding through the debris in the auditorium awash, by that point, with blood and icy water. I found myself on the wrong side of the funeral procession and, in order to return to what was left of my seat, had to cross through the column of actors as they marched through the theater, intoning a noble and morose Gregorian chant. In the course of the second half, I had become separated from my father and could not find him in the colossal theater. As I crossed through the parade of monks bearing Tamburlane on his bier, the spotlights caught me in their glare, illuminating my transit of the procession and I hoped that my father, ensconced, perhaps, above in one of the overlooking balconies would glimpse my face and form and hail me from on high. But, alas, this did not occur.
Although it is beyond the scope of this review, I note that the requiem mass and funeral of Professor Joseph Keegan, Professor Emeritus of English and Medieval Literature at the University of Detroit Mercy will be held at St. Ignatius Chapel on Wednesday, January 29 at 2:00 pm. St. Ignatius Chapel is located at 4001W. McNichols Road, Detroit.