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Theater: Dido, Queen of Carthage

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Playwright: Christopher Marlowe

At: Camenae Ensemble Theatre

at Indian Boundary Park

Phone: ( 773 ) 347-1080; $15

Runs through: March 18

If critics gave awards for bravery, Camenae Ensemble would win the Medal of Honor for deploying this play by Shakespeare's brawling contemporary, Christopher Marlowe. Bravery notwithstanding, Camenae's reach far exceeds its grasp of acting technique and staging capacity, resulting in a highly inconsistent production at best.

Camenae gives it the old college try, which is appropriate as Marlowe wrote Dido, Queen of Carthage in the 1580s at Cambridge University ( collaborating with fellow student Thomas Nashe ) . Marlowe's first full-length play is an academic work of its period, with primitive plot mechanics, shallowly-drawn characters driven by external circumstances rather than by psychological truth and declamatory language. Most academic of all is its subject, drawn from The Aeneid of Virgil, the most admired Roman poet, whose work was read in its original Latin by all educated Renaissance Europeans. Following Virgil, Marlowe tells of Dido, the warrior queen who established Carthage as a great city-state, and her wooing of Aeneas, the surviving hero of Troy.

By itself, the play is reasonably compact and vigorous, if not particularly good. It might be playable if one simply went with the flow of its artificial and sometimes bombastic style, highlighting the vivid descriptive passages that are the play's finest achievement, extending the reach and power of iambic pentameter. But, more often than not, the Camenae production attempts a realistic style, which is fatal. Only Alexandra Bennett as Dido has the acting chops to recite the verse as believable speech ( and she has the tall, strong looks of a queen/athlete, too—not to mention the best costume, a beautiful rose and gold silk sari ) .

Also, director Sara Keely McGuire has interposed a chorus reciting passages from Virgil that introduces the backstory of feuding gods ( Juno, Jupiter and Venus ) that lies behind the classical myth. Since the play is virtually unknown to all but scholars, modern audiences may not know where Marlowe ends and Virgil begins. Too, certain interposed scenes—such as that of Jupiter with an effeminate Ganymede—project a comic tone that's incorrect for the play, and which makes much of what follows seem comedic even when not intended to be so.

A few production ideas work, among them Sherri Stouffer's original music ( based on Purcell's opera ) , although there isn't quite enough of it to be integral to the show. Costumes—obviously carefully budgeted—suggest period style with lots of chitons, pagan-look jewelry and string-lace sandals. The chests and midriffs revealed are not heroic and not god-like, with director McGuire acknowledging in the program that 'body issues' were among the challenges for the company.

Quite obviously, Dido, Queen of Carthage is an ambitious stretch in many ways for Camenae. But at Camenae's present level of accomplishment, it's a learning curve of limited audience appeal.

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