Fort Greene

‘Tamburlaine’ takes the stage by storm at the Theatre for a New Audience

November 17, 2014 By Lore Croghan Brooklyn Daily Eagle
All hail “Tamburlaine”: John Douglas Thompson (l.) takes the stage by storm in the title role of Christopher Marlowe's play at the Theatre for a New Audience. Chukwudi Iwuji (r.) plays vanquished emperor Bajazeth. Photos by Gerry Goodstein
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All Hail Tamburlaine, badass conqueror of kings.

How badass? He keeps a vanquished emperor in a cage. And that’s just for starters.

The fierce and utterly charismatic warrior who calls himself “the scourge of God and terror of the world” takes the stage by storm in a riveting production of “Tamburlaine, Parts I and II” at the Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center.

OBIE Award-winning classical actor John Douglas Thompson shakes the rafters of the Downtown Brooklyn playhouse with a masterful portrayal of Christopher Marlowe’s Scythian shepherd who declares himself marked by destiny to rule the world.

Thompson’s Tamburlaine is mesmerizing as a man on a messianic mission, so sure that he’s superior to the gods he invokes and occasionally taunts.

The playhouse, a new jewel of the BAM Cultural District, opened to wide acclaim last year with a triumphant production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” directed by “Lion King” creator Julie Taymor.

“Tamburlaine” is the first long-running production of the 35-year-old Shakespeare-centric theatre’s second season in its permanent home. It is a wild and winning choice. It grabs you by the throat and carries you away.

Marlowe’s play, a huge hit when first performed in 1587, is blasphemous, shocking, violent and magnificently poetic, a fever dream about the will to power.

Tamburlaine is insanely ambitious — and until way into Part II of the 3½-hour production, he’s able to make good on every unholy boast he utters about bloodthirsty conquest.  

Kit Marlowe is of course the other great playwright of Shakespearean England, with a meteoric and tragically brief career.

Born the same year as William Shakespeare, Marlowe was murdered in 1593 at the age of 29.

He was stabbed to death, in all likelihood because of his work as a spy in Queen Elizabeth’s secret service. Like Tamburlaine, Marlowe was his own brand of badass.

Fortunately for the course of English drama, Marlowe was an early bloomer. He was probably still a Cambridge University student when he wrote “Tamburlaine.” His use of blank verse in plays (what came to be known as “Marlowe’s might line”) was revolutionary.

This extraordinary work of his requires supremely skilled actors and thoughtful staging choices, or it could go so wrong.

Fortunately for New Yorkers — who haven’t had a chance to see a major production of “Tamburlaine” here at home since 1956 — the director is four-time Olivier Award-winner Michael Boyd.

The former artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who was knighted for his services to drama, has a deft hand with this incendiary play.

The cast is superb. Thompson, the star, is worthy of superlatives at every turn.

Also especially noteworthy is Merritt Janson with her moving performance as Zenocrate, the captive who becomes Tamburlaine’s adored wife and queen.

When Zenocrate dies, Janson takes on the role of Callapine, the much aggrieved son of that vanquished emperor Tamburlaine locks in a cage. One minute, she’s lying on a deathbed as Zenocrate. The next, she rises up and starts right in on her second role. It is disconcerting to see, and brilliant.

So many searing moments, so many plot twists — it’s best not to spell out every last one. Instead, to boil it down Twitter-style, there’s #BloodBloodAndMoreBlood.

At one point in the action, blood falls like rain. At intermission, a cleaning crew with mop and vacuum comes out to make the gore-splashed stage safe to act upon again. The production uses 144 gallons of fake blood per week.

“Tamburlaine, Parts I and II” runs through Dec. 21. See for ticket info.


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