No Need to Stay Up Late for the School of NightBy Frederik Sisa @ 12:00 PM November 12, 2008
An alleged Elizabethan-era association of free-thinkers devoted to science, philosophy, poetry, politics and the repudiation of religion, is an inspired topic for a play – especially when this association encompasses the likes of Sir Walter Raleigh and Christopher Marlowe. The School of Night’s history is so murky – even the name is, apparently, a retroactive indulgence by modern writers taken from a line in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour Lost – that it lends itself to intriguing historical speculation. Toss in a turbulent political climate under Queen Elizabeth I and we have a fertile setting for a provocative drama involving freedom of religion and thought and the birth pangs of science.
Gregory Woodell, center, as Christopher Marlowe in a play that opened this week
But that’s another play. What we get instead is the long and drawn out scenario of Christopher Marlowe’s death by conspiracy, a plot that is itself based on the Marlovian theory of Shakespearean authorship and a mythology that sees Marlowe as everything from a homosexual and atheist to a spy in Sir Francis Walsingham’s intelligence network. School of Night doesn’t really get into the details until the second act, a jarring change of pace after a slow first act that brings to mind an arthritic chess player setting pieces up on the board. A sordid potboiler, the play eventually weaves a scenario that takes Christopher Marlowe’s “official” death in a bar brawl and links it to both Marlowe’s suspected atheism – stemming from his participation in the School of Night – and a William Shakespeare far removed from the traditional Stratford school of Shakespearean authorship. The kitchen sink even makes an appearance, as no piece of speculation regarding Marlowe, including the notion that his death was faked, is left out of the mix.
While playwright Peter Whelan has his fun at the expense of the most committed Marlovians – the play’s resolution is nothing if not ironic – School of Night flounders in a glut of bad pacing and character psychologies as changeable as Tymberlee Chanel’s Italian accent (in the role of actress Rosalinda) or Simon Higletts’s beautifully intricate and versatile set design. The messy implosion comes shortly after relentless quasi-historical musings reduce the characters to pawns gripped by the convolutions of an overbaked, overstuffed plot.
It is entertaining, though, to consider this little coincidence that doesn’t have much to do with the play itself, per se. As it happens, the actor who portrays Sir Walter Raleigh, Henri Lubatti, also does television work. On Friday prior to seeing School of Night, my wife and I watched the week’s taped episode of Eleventh Hour, in which Lubatti played a poor guy infected by small pox. That same night, we happened to tune in to Numb3rs, a show we don’t typically watch, only to find Lubatti in a guest role as a mystical magician. Add in School of Night, and that makes three solid Lubatti performances within a span of three days. A small thing, perhaps, but in an otherwise displeasing play, I’ll take it.
School of Night. Written by Peter Whelan. Directed by Bill Alexander. Michael Bakkensen, Ian Bedford, Tymberlee Chanel, Paula Christensen, Mark H. Dold, Johnny Giacalone, Michael Kirby, Adrian LaTourelle, Henri Lubatti, Jon Monastero, Rob Nagle, Richard Robichaux, Alicia Roper, John Sloan, Nick Toren, and Gregory Wooddell. On stage at the Mark Taper Forum until Wednesday, Dec. 17. www.marktaperforum.org