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Marlowe's Fate

Theatre Review by James Wilson - May 16, 2018

Sarah Kiefer, Len Rella, and Tim Dowd
Photo by Peter B. Hodges

"Let's get ready to rumble!" In this corner the literary heavyweight William Shakespeare! And in this corner the challenger Christopher Marlowe! For more than a century scholars have debated, disputed, and defended Shakespeare as the true author of the works bearing his name. There have been countless conferences, dissertations, and books on the subject, but there has not been (as far as I know) a knockdown, ten-round boxing match—with puppets—between Shakespeare and Marlowe squaring off in the ring. This cultural battle royale is the madcap centerpiece of the otherwise very earnest Marlowe's Fate, a new play written and directed by Peter B. Hodges.

Prior to the brawling bards, which includes academic-referee hand-puppets and a Barbie doll ring girl, Marlowe's Fate presents a possible scenario behind one of the most enduring conjectural conspiracies, the Marlowe-as-Shakespeare authorship theory. The play begins in the home of Mistress Bull (Sarah Kiefer), and which is where Marlowe (Tim Dowd) was presumably killed. This private dining club sets the scene, Marlovians would argue, for the greatest literary hoaxes of all time.

The Privy Council had deemed Marlowe dangerous because of his atheism, heresy, and, to paraphrase Marlowe, his love for both tobacco and boys. Robert Poley (Thomas Grube), an Agent of the Crown, brings word that Marlowe the man shall be killed, but Marlowe the writer shall remain alive. With the help of a couple of henchmen, Skeres and Frizer (Len Rella and Brady Adair), Marlowe fakes his death, and a substitute corpse is secured. All that is needed is a useful pawn to present his work in his place.

Enter young William Shaxper (Dowd), who is uneducated, discreet, and has a habit of spelling his name with all kinds of variations. He seems to be the perfect stand-in. Perfect, that is, until he gets restless and threatens to undermine the whole scheme. Ben Jonson (Rella) steps in as a friend and mentor to manage Shaxper, who will continue to serve as a Marlowe front. Jonson, the play also suggests, is chiefly responsible for making sure Shakespeare's name stayed and stays attached to Marlowe's works.

Tom Grube, Brady Adair, and Len Rella
Photo by Peter B. Hodges

Marlowe's Fate is the second play in the Caravan Theatre Company's Christopher Marlowe Festival. The first, The Shakespeare Conspiracy, presented a rather campy, sleuth-like cat-and-mouse take on the material. The current offering, except for the freewheeling puppet scene, is far more erudite in its intentions. Both the program and playscript, for instance, contain copious endnotes.

As a result Marlowe's Fate is more of an argument than a play, and the characters (including Marlowe and Shakespeare, who have relatively little stage time) are not much more than mouthpieces for theories that have been more persuasively (but not nearly definitively) argued elsewhere. Therefore, the evening makes for, as Shakespeare (or Marlowe?) might state, a very long "two hours traffic of our stage." This is a pity since there is some fine writing, and there are notable passages that nicely convey Elizabethan inflections and syntax.

Hodge has directed a fine company of actors, each doing triple duty (or more) as the large roster of historical and literary figures. With minimal costume changes the company effectively captures the heroic and roguish qualities of the characters, span the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. (Elizabeth Bove designed the excellent and period-specific costumes.)

Caravan should be commended for undertaking an ambitious project with two different plays on a similar subject. In the spirit of the Marlowe-Shakespeare, punch-counterpunch, puppet death match, however, it might have been wise to produce a play with an opposing view or alternative hypothesis. In its presentation of two works from the Marlovian perspective it seems the theatre company doth protest too much.

Marlowe's Fate
Through May 26
The Studio Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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