We returned to the Blackfriar Playhouse, a couple of weekends ago, to see the American Shakespeare Center’s production of Christopher Marlowe’s play, “Tamburlaine the Great”. Part 1 chronicles Tamburlaine’s ascension from Scythian shepherd to conquerer over the Persians, Turks, and Egypt. As you can imagine, Shakespeare’s contemporary litters the stage with dead soldiers, generals, and rulers; not exactly a romantic drama to celebrate Linda’s birthday. But, this is the threatre!
I pretty well summarized the five acts of the play in the sentence above, except for the sub-plot of Tamburlaine’s conquest in love. Along the way from disposing the king of Persia, Tamburlaine’s army prevents Zenocrate, the Egyptian princess, from returning to her fiance, the King of Arabia. He spares her and her attendants, but vows that she will love and marry him. By the end of the play, when Tamburlaine’s warriors have killed the King of Arabia, along with most of the population of Damascus, and accepted the Soldan of Egypt’s surrender, Zenocrate has the option to accept Tamburlaine’s invitation to marriage, or meet death at the end of his sword. Some romantic choice.
Of the many acting techniques that the company utilized in this production, their ability to express the internal state of the characters through their eyes captivated me. With the opening line of Mycetes, King of the Persian Empire, Benjamin Curns steps forward, looking out at us, as if we were his subjects awaiting an important speech, pauses, and shows his insecurity in his watery eyes. He pauses, and asks his brother, Cosroe to deliver a hearty speech, knowing that his brother has the power to sway an audience. Cosroe (John Harrell), looks assuredly to the audience, provides the oratory, and decries his brother’s in ability to make a decision. Mycetes glares at Cosroe, who stares back as if besieging the royal city until the ruler succumbs. Do not take your eyes off the players’ eyes for every battle will be fought with words, looks, and brute force.
Tamburlaine’s followers, Techelles (Mirian Donald) and Usumacasane (Chris Johnston), have eyes that tell of ambition and obedience. They crave the power that shepherd are not afforded, and stand willing and waiting for the command to lead their armies onto the next attack. Their eyes are ever looking forward. In defiance are Zenocrate’s attendants, who stand with obedient gazes upon their princess. Daniel Burrows uses his eye acutely to defend his princess’ honor when threatened by Tamburlaine, but also drops his gaze in submission when Zenocrate’s accepts Tamburlaine’s offer of safety. He conveys his loyalty in defiance and acquiescence by the shift of his brow.
Later in play when Tamburlane captures the Turkish emperor, Bajazeth and his empress, Zabina, he leaves Zenocrate and Zabina set upon two stools, while the armies battle outside. Though of questionable allegiance to Tamburlain, Zenocrate (Blythe Coons) looks smugly down on Zabina (Allison Glenzer), who returns a haughty sneer. The battle rages, and each when she doubt the victory for her side, lets down her stoney glances, to reveal the vulnerability of relying upon the ruler and lover to maintain her status. As Tamburlaine’s army is victorious, Zabina’s eye widen in horror, foreshadowing what will happen to her and her emperor in scenes to come.
As I mentioned in my review of Hamlet and Earnest, we looked forward to seeing Ms. Glenzer taking on a prominent role in a future production. We had to wait only until we returned for this production. In the scenes in which Bajazeth (Rene Thornton, Jr.) is kept in a cage by Tamburlaine, while Zabine attends to him from outside, Ms. Glenzer carries out a most rewarding performance. Who will forget her eyes as she watches in disgust at Tamburlaine’s humiliation of her husband? Who will forget her compassion as she offers to bring food and water to him, when they are left alone by the warring soldiers? Who will forget the terror in her eyes when she returns with a cup to find that Bajazeth has killed himself in his cage? Who will forget the remorse as she too kills herself, leaving the stage with one more disposed royalty?
If we are to find these characters fully human, and not some set of cartoonish demons, it is surely by the power of John Keegan’s eyes in his portrayal of Tamburlaine. From his first appearance with self-confidence, to his assured direction of his followers, co-opting of his enemies’ generals, and seduction of Zenocrate, Keegan’s Tamburlaine speaks as much with his eyes as with Marlow’s words. During Tamburlaine’s siege of Damascus, he dons a most horrifying series of colored rings around his eyes: First, white for surrender; then, red for blood; and finally, black for death. This makeup does not mask his eyes, but makes them stand out in contrast as if they existed separate from the rest of his body. If looks could kill, Tamburlaine would not need his armies to subdue the world.
Yet, with all of this power, Tamburlaine longs for Zenocrate’s love. Can a warrior turn his sight from conquest and destruction, to compassion and devotion? I guess we will have to see if the American Shakespeare Center will produce “Tamburlaine the Great, Part 2” in some future season.