Story: That green-eyed beauty, envy, has consumed young Will Shakespeare as he struggles to make a mark in Elizabethan London. In the year 1593 Will is chafing in his marriage to the strong-willed and unromantic Anne Hathaway, several years his senior and mother of his children. She chides him for not being able to support the family and says she and the kids are moving back to Stratford-upon-Avon. Shakespeare thinks if only he can get beyond the shadow of Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, the titan of literature of the era, he can succeed.
Marlowe, just two months older than his fellow scribe, is given to excess in wine, women and men, not necessarily in that order, and has made more than a few enemies who view him as a threat, a blasphemer and maybe even a traitor. When Marlowe comes under the suspicion of several government types, they invite Will to join them in doing away with the bohemian Kit. His mistress, a married woman named Emilia Lanier, also is bedding the impassioned Shakespeare, and implores Will to think about what he’s doing. But Shakespeare, desperate for recognition, considers joining the conspiracy to kill his chief rival. Et tu, Will?
Highlights: West End Players Guild opened its 101st season on November 11, 2011, exactly one century after its debut as a local theater company formed by a group of Washington University professors. What better way to celebrate than by presenting a carefully crafted play about The Bard himself, lovingly directed and expertly performed? Such is the case with Murdering Marlowe, a compelling, intriguing and intelligent fantasy crafted by noted writer and savvy Shakespearean scribe Charles Marowitz. His taut, two-act drama cagily poses the premise of a young Will conspiring to do away with his rival to propel his struggling career.
Other Info: First produced in 2002, Murdering Marlowe hasn’t achieved much recognition. That’s a shame, because it’s really quite clever, particularly in the manner in which Marowitz drops lines into dialogue between characters that hearkens to famous and familiar phrases in the Shakespeare canon.
Additionally, several of our town’s veteran Shakespearean players lend their notable expertise to this devilishly charming fable. Robert A. Mitchell, who is accomplished in the ways of The Bard himself, directs with a strong and familiar understanding of Will’s way with words as well as pacing the show’s two hours and two acts with a delicious rhythm. He’s aided by Renee Sevier-Monsey’s judicious lighting design that accentuates key scenes as well as Michael Perkins’ stirring and haunting sound design. Costume designer Teresa Doggett adds flair with notable and handsome period togs, while Nic Uulmansiek’s understated set design allows for the players to deliver their lines on a modestly filled stage overshadowed by a large print of the cover of Tamburlaine the Great, the wildly popular play that launched Marlowe’s own career in 1587.
Perkins is quite convincing as young Will, whether in his petulance and desperation in the presence of Anne, his hopeless infatuation with Emilia or his subservience to his comrade in ink, Kit Marlowe. His interpretation is bolstered by a compelling and ingratiating performance by John Wolbers as the lustful Marlowe, a man who believes in his own superiority and goes after what he wants with gusto and abandon. The two accomplished players make the stage resonate with the larger-than-life personalities of their namesakes.
Maggie Murphy is excellent as the calculating and self-confident Emilia, a steely and beautiful woman who knows how to cultivate her own desires, while Laura Singleton is equally impressive as Anne, deeply disappointed in her husband’s floundering economic ways, unimpressed with his longing for fame while she struggles to put food on the table.
Mitchell also cultivates splendid work by others in the supporting cast who make this such an engaging production. David Wassilak is convincingly cunning as the manipulative conspirator Robert Poley, Todd Moore is amusing as Poley’s tagalong and dimwitted comrade Ingram Frizer, Reynard Fox is terrific as the nefarious government agent Henry Maunder and Jim Hurley, sharing the evening’s humorous moments with Moore, is the crazy-like-a-fox theatrical producer Philip Henslow, who knows his audience, whether it’s his bread-and-circus patrons or his torturous interrogators. Murdering Marlowe is a literate and satisfying drama that poses an outrageous premise and then goes about making it seem both plausible and possible.
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Group: West End Players Guild
Venue: Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Blvd. at Enright
Dates: November 18, 19, 20
Tickets: $20; contact 376-0025 or westendplayers.org
Photos courtesy of John Lamb