Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Dido, Queen of Carthage at the American Shakespeare Center

The chance to see an early English drama that is not produced very often is one of the benefits of the American Shakespeare Center.  As their last production of the Actors' Renaissance Season, the repertory company presents Christopher Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage.  A retelling of the famous doomed romance from Virgil's Aeneid, this early work can be difficult to make compelling given the script's challenges.  While there are problems due to some jarring jumps in the narrative that are the fault of the script, this story of the gods interference with man and destiny exudes passion.

Aeneas and his men flee the destruction of Troy.  After wandering the seas for seven years, the goddess Juno causes a storm to wash the Trojans ashore in the kingdom of Carthage.  They meet the Queen, Dido, her sister, Anna, and Dido's suitor, Iarbus who provide the Trojans with comforts and support, rebuilding their tattered fleet.  The goddess Venus, who is Aeneas' mother, replaces Aeneas' son, Ascanius with the god Cupid who uses his love dart to make Dido fall passionately in love with Aeneas.  She does and a jealous Iarbus offers a sacrifice to the gods to win Dido's love back.  However, before any revenge can be made, Jupiter, king of the gods appears to Aeneas in a dream and  he is also urged by a visit from the god Mercury, that it is his destiny to go to Italy and found Rome.  He obeys and leaves a devastated Dido. Aeneas' abandonment of the heartbroken queen leads to a fiery tragedy for Carthage.

It is believed by scholars that Dido, Queen of Carthage is one of Christopher Marlowe's earliest plays.  It may also have been partially written by Thomas Nashe.  As such the play shows elements of the transition from narrative poetry to actual drama.  The poetry is beautiful and the talented actors deliver it with aplomb.  There are a few jarring transitions.   Now, Shakespeare has scenes in which the action happens offstage and in which the audience is told what has occurred.   Here the most difficult transition in the play comes just after Dido and Aeneas declare their very passionate love for each other in a violent storm.  Shortly thereafter Aeneas tells us that he just had the dream in which Jupiter tells him to go found Rome.  If the play was written in a later period that scene would have happened on stage (with Jacobean masque effects).  

There is also the opening scene of the play which might make some audience members uncomfortable as it depicts the love between Jupiter, king of the gods and his cupbearer, the male Ganymede.  The scene is mild compared to some productions portrayal of the male love story in Marlowe's Edward II.   Benjamin Kurns as Jupiter and Gregory Jon Phelps as Ganymede portray this relationship honestly.  It is theatrically heightened without taking it over the top.

Mr. Phelps also gives a delightful performance as the playful Cupid.  Allison Glenzer is perfect as the meddling Venus.   Brandi Rhome assays her roles as the vengeful Juno, the admonishing Mercury and as Dido's sister, trying to support her queen while pining for the Queen's cast off suitor, Iarbus.  Aidan O'Reilly as the noble Iarbus strikes a balance between jealousy and the truth that Iarbus is really just a nice guy in love with the wrong woman.

At the heart of this production are Sarah Fallon and Rene Thornton, Jr. as Dido and Aeneas.  They have a natural chemistry on stage. The actors are fearless in portraying the doomed lovers heightened emotions.  Mr. Thornton delivers a lengthy recitation of the fall of Troy that is riveting for the audience as well as the attentive company on the stage.  His dilemma in leaving his love to follow the orders of the gods is sympathetic and poignant.

Ms, Fallon must navigate what could be over-the-top hysterics in a lesser actor's hands.  In Ms. Fallon's outstanding performance Dido's desperate love is as beautiful a tragedy to behold as any Shakespeare heroine.   Her attempts to prevent Aeneas's departure are heartbreaking and her death will bring you to tears.

Dido, Queen of Carthage will be presented as part of the Actors' Renaissance Season at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia in repertoire with William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing and Richard III, Philaster, or Love Lies a-Bleeding by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, and A Mad World, My Masters by Thomas Middleton through April 7, 2012. For tickets and other performance information, please visit www.americanshakespearecenter.com.

During the Actors' Renaissance Season there are no directors or designers. The American Shakespeare Center recreates what extensive research believes were the conditions that Shakespeare's acting company would have used to stage a play. The actors receive only cue scripts containing their lines and a short "cue", the last few words of the preceding actor's line. They are responsible for acquiring their own costumes and props from the stock available at the theater. There is a prompter on the side of the stage in case someone forgets a line. The rehearsal period is a matter of days.

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