By Joe McGovern
Updated November 17, 2014 at 05:00 AM EST
Gerry Goodstein

When staging a 427 year-old drama, acknowledging the audience is a crucial trick for keeping them alert. In this mammoth adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s 1587 war epic Tamburlaine, Parts I and II, murderers roam through the aisles and make eye contact with people in the crowd. A king appears with a half-eaten leg of chicken in his mouth and passes it off to someone in the front row. And in a self-referential joke plump with irony, that same king (Paul Lazar) whips out the show’s Playbill from his jacket pocket and scolds the audience for not following the plot, mimicking our sneak-reading-by-stage-light of the play’s synopsis.

Indeed, this rare NYC production of Marlowe’s neglected two-parter (running through Dec. 21 at Theatre for a New Audience’s magnificent Polonsky Shakespeare Center), is occasionally indecipherable to the point of mental surrender. What is said to have been a scandalous narrative in the Elizabethan age now seems stale and ludicrously repetitive. But as with an overripe opera, the words here are not exactly the thing. The rewards of this gnarly, muscular production—edited and directed by Michael Boyd and headlined by the monumental John Douglas Thompson—come from the retrofitting of Marlowe’s jumbled text into a dark, cracked fantasy of carnage and revenge.

Tamburlaine deals with its title character’s rise from a common marauder to the conqueror of empires (in the shapeless Part I) and the destructive force of his power (in the tighter, fiercer Part II). Entire wars occur offstage, though Boyd has conceived of a gory conceit for symbolizing the mayhem. You could call it the Blood Bucket Challenge, as gallons upon gallons of the sticky red stuff are dumped on the actors. (In one scene, blood even rains from the sky, a fantastic effect captured by scenic designer Tom Piper’s enormous, translucent plastic curtain.) Instrumentalist Arthur Solari is perched in a bird’s nest high above the stage, and his percussive score, while relying too much on a screech that sounds like microphone feedback, nonetheless ups the creeper factor. The set, surrounded on three sides by three tiers of audience, evokes the 16th century while also looking as simple and grisly as a modern rendering factory.

In a performance that will deservedly cement his bona fides as one of the best classical actors in the English language, Thompson avoids the easy histrionics of the title role, underscoring the character’s wrath with a weary sense of rot and regret. In the play?s best scene, he gnashes with mourning over the body of his wife (Merritt Janson) and commands his men to ”wound the earth, that it may cleave in twain” and ”raise higher than the clouds, and with the cannon break the frame of heaven.” Marlowe’s name is eternally mentioned in the same breath as Shakespeare’s, with the latter cited as the superior artist of their day. (Which, of course, he was.) But in this one moving scene, Thompson inhabits the less famed playwright’s words with a magical thunder reminiscent of the Bard’s great flawed men. B+