By: David Sheward
While the methods of warfare have changed over the centuries, the motives behind it have not. Power and theology have pushed mankind to bloodthirsty conquest from the dawn of time to the digital age. So it shouldn’t be too surprising that two works on the nature of bloody conflict and terrorism, written four hundred years apart and now in Off-Broadway productions, are strikingly similar. Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine (1587) and Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand (2013) chart the destructive course of international mayhem in separate eras. Both benefit from tight, well-oiled productions, though the modern play offers more insight into its combatants.
Tamburlaine is a brutish warlord rampaging through 14th century Europe and Asia, cutting through borders as if they were butter. His only goal is to triumph, savagely murdering the citizens of the countries he vanquishes and humiliating their monarchs. Unlike the tyrants created by Marlowe’s contemporary, Shakespeare, Tamburlaine has no Macbeth-like complexity, he is all bloodlust. Thus spending three and a half hours in his company might tend to be a bit repetitive-slash, burn, torture, repeat. Luckily director Michael Boyd’s muscular and light-footed production for Theater for a New Audience, the first one in New York in over 50 years, is so swift and ingenious, you hardly notice the lack of depth or the redundancy of the massacres.
John Douglas Thompson, one of the few New York-based stage actors to tackle the major roles in the classical repertoire, is irresistibly powerful in the title role. He is supported by a sturdy company of 19 actors vivifying over 60 roles. Merritt Janson is Thompson’s equal in intensity as his paramour and then doubling as his male rival on the battlefield. Paul Lazar provides welcome comic relief as two feckless rulers and a comic jailer. Chukwudi Iwuji brings fire to a competing king while Patrice Johnson Chevannes is full of blazing fury as his defeated empress. The entire company is like a well-drilled regiment expertly executing Boyd’s commands, but the play itself provides little insight into its bloodthirsty protagonist.
Akhtar’s contemporary play, now at New York Theatre Workshop, affords more shaded views. The Invisible Hand chronicles extreme Islamic warriors who conquer cyberspace rather than battlefields. The plot is even more relevant now given the recent computer barrage waged on behalf of North Korea to punish Sony Pictures for making a comic movie depicting a bungled assassination attempt on its ruler.
An American banker is kidnapped by Pakistani extremists. He offers to pay off his ransom by earning a fortune on the stock market via in the Internet. Thus begins a delicate dance of manipulation and maneuvering between the investor, his single-minded captor, and the Imam whose motives are not quite what they seem. Akhatr’s Pulitzer-winning Disgraced, now on Broadway, exposes the religious and political intricacies which prevent our modern international community for peaceful co-existence. He does the same here, examining the humanity behind the fanaticism. Not only is his banker a multi-dimensional creation, but so is the complex Bashir his jailer whom he teaches the tricks of the financial trade. Justin Kirk, Usman Ally, and Dariush Kashani give layered performances as the three ends of the power triangle and Ken Rus Schmoll directs with precision. Special kudos to Riccardo Hernandez’s grim set and Tyler Micoleau’s stark lighting which create the atmosphere of captivity with alarming specificity.
Tamburlaine, Parts I and II: Nov. 17-Jan. 4, 2015. Theater for a New Audience at Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY; Tue.-Sun., 7 p.m.; Sun., 1 p.m.; Running time: three hours and 30 mins. including intermission; $55-$75; (866) 811-4111 or www.ovationtix.com
Photo: Gerry Goodstein
The Invisible Hand: Dec. 8-Jan. 4, 2014. New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St., NYC. Schedule varies. Running time: two hours including intermission; $35-$75; (212) 279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com.
Photo: Joan Marcus