Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Tamburlaine the Great, Part 1 at the American Shakespeare Center

Techelles:   Tamburlaine, what are we going to do tomorrow night?
Tamburlaine: The same thing we do every night, Techelles.
Techelles:  What is that?
Tamburlaine: Try and take over the world.

That is the basic plot of Christopher Marlowe's sprawling tale of the shepherd outlaw who becomes master of Asia and Africa.  Lands are visited, kings and "soldans" are overthrown.   And a mighty warrior claims dominion over all he sees and wins the love of the fair Egyptian princess he has taken prisoner.

This epic story unfolds upon the Blackfriar's stage.  While one may wish that one had a scorecard to keep track of who is betraying whom, which land is being conquered or just where in the world is Tamburlaine the Great, the accomplished company of actors at the American Shakespeare Center under the capable direction of artistic director, Jim Warren, provide a fairly clear and relatively easy to follow path from the kingdom of Persia to the besieged city of Tamburlaine's father-in-law.

Keeping this wide-ranging story concise is the sure and steady direction of Jim Warren.   He is added by the beautiful Arabian-influenced costumes of Erin M. West which subtly aid the audience in telling the various conquered kings apart.   The fights choreographed by Colleen Kelly are brutal and effective.   And the acting is superb from the lowliest virgin to the poignant and distinctive performances of the many conquered lords, kings and soldans.

John Harrell is delicious as the betraying Cosroe, brother of the King of Persia, played with appropriate bewilderment by Benjamin Curns.  Patrick Midgley is devious as the turncoat Meander.   As the loyal outlaw followers that Tamburlaine makes into kings Miriam Donald and Chris Johnston are fierce charismatic warriors.  Blythe Coons is poignant and, when called upon regally haughty as Tamburlaine's prisoner love, Zenocrate.

Outstanding performances are given by Rene Thornton, Jr. and Allison Glenzer as the conquered Emperor Bajazeth and his empress, Zabina.   Of all his conquests, Bajazeth and Zabina have the most time upon the stage as they are humiliated by Tamburlaine, until, in despair they end their torment.   Ms. Glenzer, in particular is heartbreaking as she embodies Zabina's pathos and grief.   It is a mesmerizing performance.

James Keegan commands the Blackfriar's stage as Tamburlaine.   He is not the stereotyped evil fiend that sometimes can occur in lesser productions, particularly in those versions of the play that truncate both parts of Marlowe's plays into one evening.   Mr. Keegan is convincingly a warrior and a conqueror.  He is merciless to those he conquers yet loving to Zenocrate.   It is a towering acting achievement.

While not as popular a draw as the works of Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great is well worth an visit to the Blackfriar's Playhouse.

Tamburlaine the Great is being performed in repertory with Wiliam Shakespeare's The Tempest, Henry V and Hamlet and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest through November 26, 2011.  For tickets and other performance information please visit

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