Secret doings in Olde England

By Juliet Schoen / Theater critic

Anyone who has studied English literature must have a soft spot for Christopher Marlowe, the dashing figure who produced several notable plays during the realm of Elizabeth I. Responsible for “The Jew of Malta, ” “Dr. Faustus” and ” Tamburlaine,” among others, he was killed at the age of 29. One wonders what he could have accomplished had he lived longer. (A thought that always occurs when thinking of Mozart.)

“The School of Night,” at the Ahmanson Theater, explores the incidents leading up to his death. Beautifully written by Peter Whelan, the play takes place in 1592 and features a glorious cast of characters, including William Shakespeare himself. With the plague raging in London, Sir Thomas Walsingham, cousin of the Queen’s spymaster, takes into his home a group of intellectuals who belong to “The School of Night,” a secret organization dedicated to exploring new ideas in science, religion and philosophy. Into their midst comes the great Sir Walter Ralegh, the explorer, poet and, up to this moment, a favorite of the queen. The imagined interplay of these men is fascinating. There is one woman, the wife of Walsingham, who has a great deal to say and just might be a villainess.

Marlowe flaunts his atheism, a dangerous notion, and shows his amazing bravado in an excellent performance by Gregory Wooddell. Throughout there is a sense of conspiracy and danger. During those turbulent times someone suspected of treason or even atheism could earn a trip to the dreaded Tower. Was the killing of Marlowe planned or accidental? Events leading up to the act are circumstantial.

Excellent performances are turned in by Henri Lubatti as Ralegh; John Sloan as Shakespeare; Michael Bakkensen as Thomas Kyd; Adrian LaTourelle as Walsingham and Alicia Roper as Lady Walsingham. Other key roles are taken by Ian Bedford, Tymberlee Chanel, Paul Christensen, Mark H. Dold, Johnny Giacalone, Michael Kirby and Rob Nagle. A charming Commedia dell Arte mime is performed by Nick Toren and Jon Monastero.

The set by Simon Higlet is all that can be desired of an Elizabethan manor and the costumes by Robert Perdziola reflect the period authentically. Bill Alexander, the director, does a masterful job directing a drama with numerous characters and various subplots.

This is a play for those with a predilection for historical novels. Long and wordy, “The School of Night” requires tenacity and a sense of curiosity.