The Reckoning of Kit and Little Boots
Playwright Christopher (Kit) Marlowe is not as well known as his peer, William Shakespeare. They both wrote during the reign of Elizabeth I in England, and were by all historical accounts, friends and competitors.
Marlowe’s plays, the most famous of which is "Doctor Faustus," were written in blank verse, and carried on-stage by the commanding presence of Edward (Ned) Alleyn, an authoritative and popular actor who headed the troupe The Admiral’s Men.
Marlowe, during his career, was much more popular than Shakespeare. He received a college education whereas Shakespeare was self-taught and not as learned or considered as intellectual a writer as Marlowe was. Indeed, Shakespeare owes his rise in popularity to Marlowe’s early and mysterious death. Marlowe was stabbed in the eye by Ingram Frizer under questionable circumstances, during a bar fight. Marlowe was only 29 when he died.
"The Reckoning of Kit & Little Boots" (TROK&LB) presented by The First Floor Theater, written by Nat Cassidy and directed by Gus Menary is the story of Kit Marlowe’s death and subsequent life. It begins in a dream-like state when Kit receives an eye wound, mysteriously, and is visited by a new muse, Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, aka The Roman Emperor Caligula. Caligula is a childhood nickname for the little boots that he wore while visiting the soldiers in his father’s army.
The story unfolds as we see Kit’s roommate, another playwright Thomas Kyd who is the Oscar to his Felix, culling through some old papers and histories on the Roman Emperors, looking for new play material and Kit stumbles onto the horror and fascination that is Caligula.
Caligula was a little-known Emperor for most of history, as most source documents were destroyed and second or third generation histories portray him as one of the most corrupt, depraved, insane, perverted, sociopathic and power-hungry of the Roman Emperors, and that is a field that is full of possibilities.
Marlowe, played by the handsome and serious Owais Ahmed, is transfixed by the dichotomy in Caligula’s life, as explained to him by Caligula. Tim Parker’s performance as Caligula skirts the edge of a Monty Python spoof and meaty drama. His mannerisms are an echo of Eddie Izzard and this lightness of purpose takes a role that could be all joke or all horror and tempers both.
As Kit’s last days are played out, they are woven in with scenes from his idyllic and challenging childhood as the son of atheists and the brother of strong-willed and intelligent sisters (played by Sarah C. Davis as Dorothy Marlowe and Kate Cornelius-Schecter as Anne Marlowe).
He meets often with Shakespeare, played with affable goofiness by Dav Yendler, to talk writing, roles, themes and life. Shakespeare’s more organic and less intellectually rigorous and tortured approach is juxtaposition between what Marlowe is trying to do and what Shakespeare ended up accomplishing without seeming to try.
Additionally, Kit’s roommate, Thomas Kyd, played as a kind of affable idiot savant (more idiot at times) by Garrett Lutz, shows another version of what a successful writer is. In this case, Kyd is like a cheap screenplay writer, giving the people what they want (cheap gore, easy plots, no thinking) as opposed to what Marlowe is trying to give them, which is what he thinks they need.
It comes out that Marlowe, besides being a smart, capable and talented writer, is a homosexual, an atheist, a spy and a tobacco smoker. He has been spying for Elizabeth’s Secretary and notorious Spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, played with unctuous officiousness by Alfred Thomas, and he has been doing it badly.
Marlowe tends to get drunk, shoot his mouth off about heretical subjects and forget to report to Walsingham. Because of some notes found among his papers, his roommate, Kyd, is taken in by Walsingham and tortured.
During all of this, Kit’s personal muse Caligula is walking him through his life. Caligula’s personal history of being used and abused by every person to whom he has ever been close, his near death experience that led him to believe he was a god, and his subsequent assassination by his own guard (he was stabbed 30 times) shaped who he became. Caligula was 29 when he died. Marlowe wants to know why he is fascinated by Caligula and the two go round and round about that and other questions.
The play is stretched out a little more than is needed, but the acting, staging, the glimpses of humor and the sheer likeability of Marlowe, Caligula and several of the other characters make it easy to get lost in their Elizabethan world. The theater is nestled in the back of the sprawling space at the Den Theater, and grew quite uncomfortably hot and soporific during the second act, causing many of the audience to fan themselves with programs and all the actors to sweat (except Caligula, who was wearing a toga).
This is a great pick for any anglophile, history buff, or lover of historical fiction. TROK&LB manages to be fun and serious, lighthearted and full of gravitas. Wonderful performances and a sharp script with a modern edge keep everyone on their toes.
"The Reckoning of Kit & Little Boots" by First Floor Theater runs through March 2 at The Den Theatre, 1333 N Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago. For tickets or information, visit thedentheater.com.