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The Shakespeare Conspiracy

Theatre Review by James Wilson - April 27, 2018

Mateo dÂ’Amato and Joshua Jacobson
Photo by Brian Pachelli

Quick: Who wrote, "By the pricking of my thumbs,/ Something wicked this way comes"? If you said William Shakespeare, you'd be wrong according to some conspiracy theorists, who believe that Christopher Marlowe actually penned Macbeth and every other play and poem credited to Shakespeare. Marlovians, as they are called, argue that Marlowe faked his own death to avoid possible execution as an accused atheist. Young Will Shakespeare, a second-rate actor (and apparently a third-rate scrivener and copiest), the speculation holds, became the public cover and has enjoyed undeserved recognition for the past four hundred years. This elaborate literary hoax is the premise of The Shakespeare Conspiracy, a new play by Ted Bacino and Rufus Cadigan and produced by the Fledgling Theatre Company as part of the Christopher Marlowe Festival.

As audience members enter the theatre and fumble their way through the darkness, they may have the feeling they have accidentally entered the McKittrick Hotel, where Sleep No More, the Shakespeare-Hitchcock immersive performance mash-up, has taken up residence. Scattered throughout the space are robed and hooded figures, wearing long-beaked, plague masks, similar to the ones worn by participants at Sleep No More. The Shakespeare Conspiracy may not produce the same vicarious thrills of a high-brow funhouse, but for those who revel in historical deceptions, the play offers a fair share of intrigue and conspiratorial confirmation.

The play begins in 1593. London is rife with plague, and the Crown is intent on rooting out blasphemers and Catholics. Sir Thomas Walsingham, a wealthy nobleman and arts patron, presides over a den of queens where a host of gay men preen and seek refuge from a world in which villainy abounds, and time is out of joint. Kit Marlowe (Mateo d'Amato) is Thomas's current lover, and when it appears obvious that the playwright might be arrested (or worse) for treason, the men hatch a plan to fake Marlowe's death. After all, there are plenty of bodies tossed onto the streets daily, and one might easily be used as a substitute.

Life would not be worth living (even as a dead person) if Marlowe could not write, so the men select the not-very-bright and staunchly promiscuous Shakespeare as the literary stand-in. Marlowe and Thomas can now live in secret, eternal bliss. But to quote the Bard—er, Marlowe,—"the course of true love never did run smooth."

On the other side of London, Thomas's aristocratic and government-appointed cousin Francis (Jevon Nicholson) along with Constable Henry Maunder (James Arthur M., who performas double duty as the play's narrator) become increasingly more suspicious, and a game of cat and mouse commences. Will Marlowe be revealed as the true genius behind the Shakespeare ruse? Will his faked death be exposed? Unfortunately, the historical record provides definitive spoilers.

While The Shakespeare Conspiracy has a good deal of melodramatic twists and turns to hold one's interest for most of the two-hour running time, it is not likely to change the mind of people who believe that Shakespeare did indeed write Shakespeare's plays. Sure, the main arguments supporting the Marlovian position, such as Shakespeare's presumably minimal education, his lack of worldly experience, and the intertextual references to Marlowe's works, are all presented. (It should be noted that many scholars have provided convincing rebuttals to all of these points.) But the characters are too thinly drawn and the periodic plot holes quickly skirted, though, to make a compelling case. The personage of the Bard, for example, is so vacuous and such a philandering boob in this telling that it is inconceivable anyone would accept him as a literary genius.

Under Jeremy Karafin's direction, the hard working cast members have a lot of fun with the material. At times, however, the performances come across as a bit too broad and contemporary. In the early scenes, for instance, Walsingham and his cronies resemble an Elizabethan Boys in the Band. And when a skeptical Constable Maunder attempts to set his own conscience-revealing mousetrap, he does not resemble a wily Hamlet so much as a Tudor Lieutenant Columbo.

Whereas Marlovians may find validation in this production of The Shakespeare Conspiracy, perchance the play may provoke a series of plays dealing with the authorship question. After all Baconians, Derbyites, and Oxfordians should have equal airtime and demand dramatic treatment of their theories as well.

The Shakespeare Conspiracy
Through May 5
The Studio Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge