First Floor Theater at the Den Theatre. By Nat Cassidy. Directed by Gus Menary. With Owais Ahmed, Tim Parker, Garrett Lutz, Dav Yendler, Kate Cornelius-Schecter, Sarah Davis, Alfred Thomas. 2hrs 25mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
New York–based playwright Nat Cassidy’s 2008 work takes place in a kind of limbo on the edge of death. There, Christopher Marlowe—the Elizabethan playwright of Doctor Faustus and Edward II who died of injuries incurred in what was either a random bar fight or a political hit, depending on which sources you read—is visited by the mad Roman emperor Caligula, the elusive subject Marlowe didn’t live long enough to write about.
I’m no Marlowe scholar—as Cassidy’s play points out rather clunkily, history has seen Marlowe overshadowed by his contemporary Shakespeare, portrayed here as something of a lucky hack. But as near as I can tell, the conceit that Marlowe had any interest or even awareness of Caligula is Cassidy’s invention, and it’s hard to say why he brings the two figures together, other than to make facile comparisons that range from surface-level (both were killed at age 29) to marginally offensive (both were sexual outlaws, what with Marlowe being probably homosexual and Caligula being an unimaginably cruel sadist who got off on torture and murder).
The juxtaposition is about as compelling as “Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy and Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln.” And aside from the complaints that seem to map to those of many a modern young playwright—Marlowe’s slacker “flatmate” Thomas Kyd is suddenly a hit machine, and Will Shakespeare is putting out good work that doesn’t follow the playwriting rules Marlowe learned at Corpus Christi—it’s far from clear what interest the two hold for Cassidy, either.
Gus Menary’s scruffy Chicago premiere for First Floor Theater has a slapdash feel that doesn’t help focus Cassidy’s meanderings. Tim Parker has some manic fun with Caligula’s excesses, and Garrett Lutz gives Kyd a degree of slobby-sidekick appeal. But Owais Ahmed, as Marlowe, is hemmed in by the restraints of the character as Cassidy’s written him: a bit of a snobbish, self-involved pedant.