by Christopher Marlowe
Directed by Neil Bartlett
American Repertory Theatre in Loeb Auditorium
64 Brattle St. Harvard Sq. Camb. MA/ (617) (617) 547-8300
through Mar. 26

Reviewed by Will Stackman

This collegiate work of Christopher Marlowe, his first official play written at 21 with the possible assistance of his compatriot University wit, Thomas Nashe, is rarely produced, though moreso than his later potboiler, "The Jew of Malta". In 2003, the new Globe in London revived "Dido, Queen of Carthage", possibly to bolster their artistic director's campaign to prove that Marlowe wrote Shakespeare. Since the original was presumably performed by the Children of the Chapel, a boy troupe in the first Blackfriars theatre, the recent Globe production seems to have adopted a playground atmosphere and antics reminiscent of early Peter Brook. Neil Bartlett, who in 2003 was in his last year as artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith, London, may have come to the ART to give the play a fairer hearing. He's only marginally successful, though his production is certainly more adult and only mildly camp..

Regular attendees of ART productions created by imported auteur directors won't be surprised by much in this production. Bartlett isn't the first director in recent years to revel in homoerotic chic. In the opening scene, after Cupid prances in, which is essentially a prologue on Olympus ART veteran Will LeBow as Jupiter fondles Clark Hugginsas Ganymede, his new cupbearer, who's shirtless in bluejeans. At least the straw hat on the boy shown in the promotional stills was gone by opening night. The bulk of Rae Smith's costumes are modern dress, with women's costumery influenced by '30s film couture. The most extreme outfit is worn by another ART veteran, Thomas Derrah, who does a distracting drag turn as Juno. His performance is as usual masterful, but the crucial confrontation between the queen of the gods and Saundra McClain as Venus, Aeneas mother, over the sleeping form of the hero's son, turns into a burlesque as Derrah plays the diva and McClain counters with physical attitude worthy of Queen Latifa. It should be noted that none of the officially male roles are gender switched. Casting NY "performance artist, singer, dancer, and drag queen" John Kelly as Cupid, however, is inspired, since Bartlett uses this lithe actor in effect as a stage manager and his representative to the audience. Interpolation of other Olympic gods as observers more consistently throughout the show might have picked up the rest of the evening, particularly toward the climax. Another bonus is the musical continuity provided by music director Laura Jeppesen's arrangements of period music for a trio of viols who play throughout the evening, and provide backing for Kelly's two aethereal solos.

The choice of former ART member, Diane D'Aquila, for the title role is sound. D'Aquila is currently an associate at the Stratford Festival and handles Marlowe's mighty line with ease. All the verse speaking is sure, with ART veteran Karen McDonald the most humane as Anna, Dido's sister. Both women also manage to get about the stage in costumes in expansive skirts plus trains more appropriate to Victorian official portraits than stage movement. Well traveled Shakespearean Gregory Simmons is quietly commanding as the moor Iarbus, Dido's chief suitor and regal neighbor. Seen on Broadway in Brian Friel's "Molly Sweeney", as Aeneas Colin Lane is best when describing the fall of Troy in the play's most famous scene (Act II, Sc. 1). He's not as convincing playing the lover or the commander, being too worldweary as either. He achieves little or no chemistry with the leading lady. But it's worth sitting through this five act intermissionless effort for the verse. Since the production plan has an obvious break at the end of the third, the ART should trust the intelligence of its audience more, besides increasing the traffic at its bar.

The production does start to run out of steam after this point. Acts four and five don't seem as well conceived. Even the introduction of stalwart Remo Airaldi playing the fat man in a dress one more time as Dido's Nurse, one of the few potentially comic parts in the play, doesn't really pick things up much. The fault also lies in Marlowe and Nashe's fledgling dramaturgy, which tries to liven up their Vergilean source with a bit of Ovid, and from early on interpolates Iarbus the Moor into the plot. This character doesn't originally show up in Carthage until after Dido's death . Creating a triangle with this king in love with Dido, the queen enamored of Aeneas, and her sister Anna hopelessly in love with Iarbus feels imposed at best. Bartlett's final death scene for the three after Aeneas' departure is almost drab, with little fire effect for Dido's self-immolation, just a sound like frying bacon and a wisp of smoke. Since he's never been seen armed, to keep with the director's vision of Dido's court as soft and peaceful, Iarbus then falls on his pocket knife. Only MacDonald's controlled enfolding of her lover's body as she dies herself rescues the ending. But no one figured out how to get their two bodies offstage before the curtain call. The director seems to have used up the possibilities of Smith's black box set conception with its clever rehanging of the Loeb's seldom seen red drapery, and decided to work en studio for the climax. Even Kelly's Cupid, the most interesting part of his conception, is underused toward the end, though the character gets a great exit upstage through a never-before used door.

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