The Shakespeare Conspiracy is based on Ted Bacino’s novel of the same title that he and Rufus Cadigan have adapted for the stage. Their effort is not in the league of such highly skilled dramatists as Peter Shaffer, Tom Stoppard and David Hare who used speculatively historical backgrounds for some of their esteemed works. Instead, Mr. Bacino and Mr. Cadigan offer a choppy series of overheated episodes and vignettes spanning 40 years, from 1593 to 1633 chiefly taking place in England with plentiful and heavy-handed dialogue.
Acclaimed playwright and gay libertine Christopher Marlowe has also been a spy for Sir Francis Walsingham, an official of The British Crown. Marlowe’s usefulness has ceased due to his scandalous lifestyle. As Marlowe knows too many secrets the only solution is to have him killed. Sir Francis charges his cousin Sir Thomas Walsingham with this deed as he and Marlowe are lovers.
Horrified by this demand, Sir Thomas instead contrives to have Marlowe seemingly murdered in a pub, substituting his body with that of a Black Plague victim. All goes well and in order to keep having his plays performed, the dim-witted minor actor William Shakespeare is enticed to take credit for Marlowe’s work while Marlowe lives luxuriously at Sir Thomas’ estate in connubial bliss.
The Inspector Javert/Columbo-type Constable Henry Maunder has been suspicious of the details of the murder and of stylistic similarities between Marlowe and Shakespeare’s works. He is also skeptical that the bumpkin Shakespeare could possess the knowledge to have written so realistically of court manners, foreign countries and history. At the urging of the equally doubtful Sir Francis, Maunder’s investigation goes on for decades.
Shakespeare wrote and had several plays performed before The Shakespeare Conspiracy begins so he wasn’t the unknown rube pictured. Richard III was written in 1593. Bacino and Cadigan harp on their claim that 14 plays by Shakespeare were produced after his death to sustain their plot. That isn’t true, all of Shakespeare’s celebrated plays were performed during his lifetime. Chronologically and factually, their premise plays fast and loose with facts as well as being structurally scattershot.
Director Jeremy Karafin strives for a wickedly Jacobean atmosphere with his aggressive staging that attempts to compensate for the labored script. When the audience enters the dark theater, actors in hooded robes and beak-nosed masks mill around for quite a while and go through the audience, supposedly symbolic of the plague sweeping through London.
The theater is configured in an L-shape with one side having the rows of seats raised on platforms and the other area of seats flat. They’re separated by a small runway. Mr. Karafin has the actors everywhere possible during the show, injecting energy and momentum.
Karafin has assembled a talented multiracial company who variously perform with classical and contemporary verve. This non-traditional casting and the moderate Homoeroticism on display all add flashiness which this patchy and often ludicrous material needs. Still, it all does get wearying over the course of two acts in two hours.
The dark curly haired, beaming and youthful Mateo d’Amato is terrific in the central role of Marlowe exhibiting tremendous stamina and charm. With his lithe and sculpted physique and expressive voice, Mr. d’Amato conveys the abundant sensuality, sensitivity and cunning the part requires.
The regal Matthew Dalton Lynch is authoritative, passionate and engaging as Sir Thomas. With the charisma of a Nuyorican Poets Café Slam master, the wiry James Arthur M. is dynamic as the pesky constable who is the narrator. Physically imposing, possessed of a booming vocal delivery and piercing eyes, Jevon Nicholson offers an icy portrait of noble malevolence as Sir Francis.
With his hulking presence and affability, Temesgen Tocruray achieves all of the intended comedy possible as the dim William Shakespeare, hilariously pronouncing Cymbeline as “silly beans.” Paul Marquez is delightfully animated as the supremely foppish Lord Henry Wriothesley. Dontonio Demarco makes a strong impression as Thomas Kyd, an unfortunate theatrical colleague with his intensity. In his brief appearance as a seductive assassin, Joshua Jacobson is winningly placid.
By displaying gold and orange curtains, a plush divan and some vintage furniture, scenic designer Brian Pacelli conjures up the grandeur of the era with his inventive settings. Mr. Pacelli’s busy lighting design is a constant range of dramatic elements that visually complements all of the machinations.
Bursts of pounding Elizabethan music throughout the show are adeptly rendered as are various effects by David M. Lawson’s sound design.
Breeches, furs, paisley-style prints, and boots are components of Alice Geaccone’s witty costume design that artfully evokes the senses of time and place.
The Shakespeare Conspiracy has been performed regionally around the United States and this is its New York City premiere. Presented as part of “The Battle of the Bards: The Christopher Marlowe Festival,” which runs six weeks and features a second play, Marlowe’s Fate, it’s full of sound and fury signifying nothing.
The Shakespeare Conspiracy (through May 5, 2018)
Fledgling Theatre Company
The Studio Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-432-7250 or visit http://www.theatrerow.org
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission