American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge. Directed by Neil Bartlett; designed by Rae Smith
The gods of Marlowe’s heaven, as cast by Neil Bartlett, are not only polymorphous and perverse but gay and integrated. Much post-modern sensibility infiltrates this wonderfully costumed production of Christopher Marlowe’s rarely performed play, enacted on a bare, high, black, neutral stage. “Post-modern” means, among other things, eclectic, sampling from various styles and periods: Venus, played by a statuesque African-American woman, Sondra McLain, is in a shimmering, white, clinging gown reminiscent of Mae West; Dido (Diane D’Aguila), is in full Elizabethan garb with a sweeping train, as is her sister Anna (Karen McDonald); Aeneas and his cohort, who first appear like Navy Seals in body armor, special forces just up out of the sea, once settled for the moment in Carthage adopt crisp double-breasted suits reminiscent of Little Italy, a contingent of high-class Godfather thugs; and Remo Airaldi, Dido’s nurse, makes a late appearance dressed in a sort of Bavarian governess’s city outfit, tight skirt and jacket and utilitarian inverted bucket hat; Ascanius, Aeneas’s son, is in blue striped pajamas and bare feet; meanwhile, Cupid, played by the very talented John Kelly, is a magnificently physiqued near-naked presence in a velvet loincloth, with a dainty bow not really potent enough to launch the foot-long arrow that Cupid proceeds to deliver to the breast by hand in slow motion. Scene changes are accomplished through the movement of wide, sumptuous velour curtains, called in by Cupid, the master of tragic ceremonies, with a gesture, a clap of the hands, or a snap of the fingers; he calls, the curtains travel, and cover the end of one scene or discover the beginning of the next.
How would this play have been played in Marlowe’s own time? was the question that came up for me and my companion. What does it mean to play it “straight” instead of taking the a-historical subversive route of the present production? We look for the answer in the text itself, where, in the first scene, Marlowe gives us an Olympus where Cupid’s arrows can strike in the most random and capricious way, where Jupiter, God of the universe, can suddenly find himself enamored of his cupbearer Ganymede (a slang term, in Marlowe’s time, for a boy prostitute, the program dutifully informs us; I’m surprised the program didn’t go on to inform us of Marlowe’s saying “All those who love not tobacco and small boys are fools”). That is, by looking at what victims of desire Marlowe makes the gods into, while continuing to endorse their arbitrary, cruel, and capricious power over humans, he shows us, finally, a world in which desire, power, and the prospect of greatness all combat one another for dominance. The result, in the case of Aeneas and his bereft love Dido, is the founding of Rome and the self-immolation of the unhappy queen.
This is prime material out of which to make a parable about the chaotic, riven, post-imperial world of the early twenty-first century; Bartlett accordingly does just that, ably assisted by his long-time designer friend Rae Smith, whose stage is a marvelously eclectic selection from history’s top-rated costume shop, including Dido’s court of men-only retainers, resplendent in tuxedos with black or white ties. Costume, in this production, stands in as a quasi-universal language of the passions, ready to be pressed into service to express any human emotion, however bizarre or painful.
I had trouble getting into this production, put off partly by some of the near-unintelligibility of the actors’ problematic articulation of Marlowe’s mighty line; and I thought Aeneas’s depiction of the downfall of Troy and the murder of King Priam was too rushed and not sufficiently well parsed — American actors have a terribly hard time with Elizabethan verse; their natural speech rhythms militate against both meter and sense. But I gradually came to understand what was going on, in the play itself and in this ambitious and ultimately quite serious production of it, and ended up liking it very much.