I’ve never been chloroformed myself, but I’m guessing the experience of watching Katharine Sherman’s bloated, pretentious christopher marlowe’s chloroform dreams—now playing at the Red Room, in a production clumsily directed by Philip Gates—is pretty similar: Time slows down, nothing makes any sense, you feel confused and angry, and, after a while, headache sets in.
What do Christopher Marlowe, the swashbuckling Elizabethan playwright, and Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s hard-nosed fictional gumshoe, have in common besides a last name? Not much, actually—even if you factor in Christopher’s probable involvement in espionage. But that didn’t stop Sherman, who apparently decided that this amazing coincidence demanded creating a very long play in which a detective named Christopher Marlowe (Christopher Fahmie), who talks in refried film-noir drawl cut with awful poetry, chases his lost hophead girlfriend, the classically monikered moll Daphne (Valerie Redd), interminably around a criminal underworld. (Said underworld has mythical overtones, of course). He loses her to an evil Southern drug dealer/Hades figure, he finds her, he loses her again, he finds her again. Eventually, bad stuff reminiscent of the real Chris Marlowe’s violent demise happens. The play is kind of like the protracted, boring anxiety dream of someone who’d stayed up late on Ritalin studying for an English renaissance poetry exam, then watched The Maltese Falcon to relax.
It’s a bit obtuse to imagine real-Marlowe, who by all accounts played for the other cricket side, as a gruntingly hetero private dick. He famously pronounced that “All they that love not Tobacco and Boys are fools.” But it’s basically criminal to invoke Marlowe’s name in a play that lacks any of his flair for dramatic incident. He wrote dramas about doomed gay kings, rapacious central Asian conquerors, villainous Semitic stereotypes, and bargains with the devil—not dull stuff, by any measure.
Sherman’s Chris Marlowe wears a raincoat and a fedora and rattles off soft-boiled nonsense and annoying wordplay masquerading as poetry. She adheres to the “tweak and repeat” method of composing doggerel dialogue, and the forced verbal whimsy gets numbingly tedious. A sample: “once upon a time there was a habit./a habit’a mine, for a time. a time./and once upon a time she hadda have it–/the girl she had a habit she was mine.” The redundancy in the lines, coupled with a nasty narration dependency—Sherman likes to tell and then also show—puts masses of flab on a diminutive dramatic frame. (There might be a cute—if forgettable—one-act play crying out inside this obese mess.)
The script is full of self-satisfied references to the real Marlowe’s poetic oeuvre that add exactly nothing to the meaning of the experience. Hero and Leander crops up as a campfire story; “Come Live With Me and Be My Love” is scrawled across a bedspread. At various points, there’s some doubt about whether or not the whole thing is just a hazy hallucination. (The titular chloroform gets applied to detective-Chris’s face pretty early on). Does it really matter? Not in the least!
After a couple hours of this dithering, I began wishing desperately for a surprise ending in which Tamburlaine, the real Marlowe’s mighty barbarian hero, would come through on horseback and put everyone onstage to painful death. Sadly, it didn’t arrive. Where’s a Hun when you need one?