Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Bailiwick Repertory Theatre

Timothy Hull and Julie Partyka as Marlowe and Queen Elizabeth I
Christopher Marlowe, the shadowy figure and a secondary character played by Rupert Everett in Shakespeare in Love, is certainly worthy of a drama of his own. A popular playwright and poet in his time, his work endures today and the mysteries surrounding his life are more tantalizing than those of Shakespeare's. He was very likely a spy for the Queen, he may have been gay, and the precise circumstances of his violent death at age 29 are not fully known.

In this world premiere production, author Harlan Didrickson draws a number of juicy conclusions. Some, like the premise that Marlowe was a spy for Queen Elizabeth I, have historical support. Others, like the ideas that Marlowe and Elizabeth's Secretary of State Sir Francis Walsingham (played in the film Elizabeth by Geoffrey Rush) were gay lovers and that Elizabeth herself may have carried a torch for Marlowe are more of a stretch. Didrickson ignores the fact that the twice-married Walsingham died three years before Marlowe's death and that the Virgin Queen was 30 years Marlowe's senior. To be honest, I knew none of those facts as I saw the play and I imagine few in the audience did either, so a good helping of dramatic license in the name of creating a good story is hardly a crime.

Though this script has apparently been around for a while (director David Zak's program notes suggest he read the first draft sometime before 1992), it's more of a detailed outline than a fully satisfying script. Didrickson has created a good yarn, though it's sometimes hard to follow the plot for those (like me) who are unfamiliar with the historical details, and the title character needs more development. We want to know more of Marlowe's motivations. How did he come to be a spy? What drove him to write such incendiary plays? Was his homosexuality as comfortable to him and his associates as Didrickson portrays it here?

The author also has trouble deciding on a voice for the dialogue. The language sometimes sounds Elizabethan, at other times (when Walsingham tells Elizabeth "just be the Queen, don't be such a bitch," for instance) quite contemporary. Marlowe is sometimes addressed as "Chris," when the history books tell us the common nickname of the era would have been Kit. James Goldman made a contemporary voice work for The Lion in Winter while other authors have used an accessible faux Elizabethan one. If this work is to undergo more work, the author should choose one or the other.

Zak's cast, an experienced crew of working non-Equity professionals, move like pros and have good stage presence, but their performances lack the texture that might bring some of the script's subtext to life, or give it more than it has. As Marlowe, Timothy Hull has the swagger and passion we'd expect of the man. He has no trouble holding the spotlight, yet he doesn't suggest any deeper motivations. Julie Partyka bears resemblance both physically and in apparent age to Cate Blanchett's young Elizabeth. She competes well against the memory of Blanchett's Oscar-nominated performance, but like her castmates, Partyka could deliver a more nuanced portrayal. Kevin Mayes seems too young and insufficiently imposing for the part of Walsingham (even without a memory of Geoffrey Rush as the character, we're shown that this is a man who can get away with verbally abusing the Queen!). He gives us a clear and layered point of view toward the character, but the production could benefit from an equally solid performance by actor who might be more physically appropriate.

Steven Marzolf and Jonathan Perira give convincing performances in the supporting roles of Marlowe's friends (and possibly lovers) Thomas Kyd and Thomas Watson. The remaining ten performers show versatility in playing four to six characters each, giving the feeling of a much larger cast. (I must say, though, that if I'm ever physically assaulted I hope I won't have to depend on any of them to come to my rescue, based their performance of the "violence design" by R & D Choreography).

Though the script doesn't deliver the entertainment level of a Shakespeare in Love, Lion in Winter or Elizabeth, Zak has given it handsome production values. The set, a series of rough-hewn wooden platforms by the busy and successful young Chicago designer Brian Sidney Bembridge effectively suggests the period of the action and helps set the mood. It appears no expense has been spared in the period costumes, designed for the play's 37 characters by Kerith Wolf. (I can't resist noting the irony that it's probably the success of Bailiwick's cash cow Naked Boys Singing that has enabled the investment in sumptuous costumes like these.) Jared Moore's lighting design gives an appropriately dark and shadowy feeling to the piece, particularly when the action takes us to places like Newgate Prison and the Tower of London.

One can't help but compare Marlowe to the films mentioned above and the Oscar-winning performances within them. It's a high bar to be measured against and perhaps the promotion of the piece as a "World Premiere" suggests a more finished script than this one. Bailiwick and its cast have given it everything they have, though, and are to be commended for showing the potential of the ideas in the script.

Marlowe runs through July 17th at Bailiwick Arts Center, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $22 on Thursdays and $25 on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets can be purchased by calling the Box Office at 773-883-1090 or online at

Photo: Michael Brosilow

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