Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Dido, Queen of Carthage"

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note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi


by Christopher Marlowe
directed by Neil Bartlett

Musicians … Laura Jeppesen/Carol Lewis; Jane Hershey; Emily Walhout
Cupid, son of Venus … John Kelly
Jupiter … Will LeBow
Ganymede, a Trojan shepard boy … Clark Huggins
Venus, Aeneas’ mother … Saundra McClain
Aeneas … Colin Lane
Ascanius, his son … Ezra Lichtman
Aechaetes … Brent Harris
Ilioneus, survivor from Troy … Peter Cambor
Cloanthus, survivor from Troy … Peter Dylan Richards
Sergestus, survivor from Troy … Jorge Rubio
Iarbas, Kingof Gaetulia … Gregory Simmons
Dido, Queen of Carthage … Diane D’Aquila
Anna, her sister … Karen MacDonald
Juno, wife of Jupiter … Thomas Derrah
Hermes … Sam Chase
Nurse … Remo Airaldi

While taking tickets at the door, the A.R.T. usherettes announced that their company’s production of the rarely-performed DIDO, QUEEN OF CARTHAGE has a running time of two hours, ten minutes and is performed without an intermission; an older patron threatened to cancel his membership if such evenings continue to be the rule rather than the exception. The man may have been thinking about his bladder; I thought about my having sat through A.R.T.’s dreadful LADY WITH A LAPDOG, also performed straight through, and wondered what would be done with (and to) Christopher Marlowe’s retelling of Dido’s tragic love for Aeneas; a love that ends in her self-immolation. When the evening began with a punk Cupid descending a circular staircase, glaring at his audience, I knew I was back at the A.R.T.; rather than reactivate this Elizabethan tragedy, Neil Bartlett has followed the house style and packed it in ice: his direction is cold, stately and terribly arty (A.R.T.y?) --- e.g. Cupid and Hermes move in the same trance-promenade found in early avant-garde films. I might have tolerated, even welcomed, something over the top had it matched Mr. Marlowe’s sensuous verse but what Mr. Bartlett offers is a bare stage with a red curtain drawn back and forth to cover old tableaus and reveal new ones while three musicians monotonously saw away; those who come for DIDO’s homoeroticism must make do with Cupid and a golden-skinned Hermes sporting bikini briefs while other men bare their chests; in one scene, Dido’s rejected suitors appear with empty picture frames: instead of holding the frames before their faces, they keep them at torso-level. Camp raises its inevitable head: Saundra McClain’s home-girl Venus reaps laughter for its anachronism, alone; Thomas Derrah’s drag-Juno, nearly played straight, reminded me of the late Charles Ludlum and his too-early death, and if you liked Pee-Wee Herman, you will adore John Kelly’s overly coy Cupid who wanders throughout as an ambivalent agent of Fate similar to A.R.T.’s Time in its WINTER’S TALE, several seasons ago. Will LeBow, who recently stole much of the Huntington’s THE RIVALS, is cast very much against type as Jupiter (also painted gold), giving jewelry to a hustler Ganymede. Mr. LeBow deserves better treatment --- Lorca’s Don Perlimplin, for starters.

Colin Lane is vocally ragged as a weary, burnt-out Aeneas and is soon overpowered by Diane D’Aquila’s rich, dignified Dido, the production’s guiding light. She, too, has been directed to remain on the surface and at times emotes in Brit-com fashion, but she has numerous cool colors that lend variety to her readings and, in turn, create a characterization. Since her Aeneas registers as a blank, their love duets never catch fire but Mr. Marlowe has given his Queen magnificent arias once she is heartbroken and here Ms. D’Aquila comes to full flower, pulling this DIDO to the finish line on her back, alone; her conviction in creating a verbal holocaust may (briefly) convince you that she has been truly incinerated upon her descending below stage (great sound effects, here). Gregory Simmons’ booming Iarbus is Ms. D’Aquila’s truer partner; their scenes, though filled with animosity, have a musical give and take sadly lacking in her encounters with Mr. Lane. The evening’s most moving moment --- a frail heartbeat beneath the ice --- belongs to Karen MacDonald’s Anna. Ms. MacDonald is more at home in contemporary fare than the classics --- her declaiming voice easily becomes a collection of squawks --- but she closes DIDO with an exquisite death tableau: Iarbus has just killed himself and Anna has opened a vein so that she may join him. She props Iarbus up and throws his limp arms around her, then draws her shawl around them, both, leaving them in a heap as the lights begin to dim; after a moment, Anna, too, becomes still --- warm flesh has turned to stone; that’s Death, all right. You would think the lights would fade on this mute poetry but Mr. Bartlett then shifts the focus to Cupid, backing into a lighted doorway, a smile on his face, and smashes Ms. MacDonald’s achievement. I will say this, though: Mr. Bartlett’s supporting cast remains stock-still in tableau, rather than mugging and gesturing, allowing the audience to focus on whoever is speaking. I’ve grumbled on this topic, elsewhere, and am glad to see that A.R.T., of all places, has respected it.

Here’s a bit of trivia: the A.R.T. posters and program display a close-up of Bronzino’s Venus and Cupid, in incestuous embrace. When next you see the portrait in full, examine Cupid’s foot in the lower left corner. If it looks familiar, that is because Terry Gilliam excised it, reversed the image and used it as the Foot that stomped through numerous Monty Python sketches. Now, there's criticism, for you.

"Dido, Queen of Carthage" (5-26 March)
54 Brattle Street, CAMBRIDGE, MA
1 (617) 547-8300

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide