The Reckoning of Kit & Little Boots
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 8, 2008
"Kit" is Christopher Marlowe, the Elizabethan playwright, poet, and spy who wrote Tamburlaine the Great and Edward II. "Little Boots" is Caligula, the Roman emperor who went insane and became notorious for his debaucheries. One thing that both men have in common is that they were murdered at the age of 29; playwright Nat Cassidy found other coincidental congruencies in the course of putting together The Reckoning of Kit and Little Boots, which posits the latter figure as a kind of muse or guide to the former. The play's conceit is that Marlowe is working on a drama about Caligula, which explains why "Little Boots" would be on his mind at the moment an assassin—accidental or paid—plunged a knife into Marlowe's eye. As Marlowe lies dying from the wound, he revisits his own life and Caligula's, and possibly gains some self-knowledge.
Caligula is a fab character, and an irresistible one, and David Ian Lee seems to be having a blast bringing him to life. He gets to recount anecdote after anecdote of Caligula's astonishing, depraved, mythic existence: how his grandmother Livia murdered her own husband and tricked Caligula into murdering his own father; how (and why) Caligula tried to have his horse elected to the Senate; how the great love of Caligula's life was his sister Drucilla. Cassidy seems particularly fascinated by the sexual excesses of this character, and descriptions of acts of incest and more pepper Caligula's accounts of his life here.
But fun in its way as this all is, the heart of Cassidy's play—and the best parts of it—have nothing to do with the Roman emperor. Marlowe is the play's protagonist, after all, and it is what he learns from his experiences with his roommate Thomas Kyd (also a playwright, though a lesser one: he wrote The Spanish Tragedy), his comrade William Shakespeare, and his employer Sir Francis Walsingham that really fuel this Reckoning.
What I liked best about the play is the way that Cassidy contemporizes Marlowe's existence without in any way diminishing it. Kit is a twentysomething overgrown kid, grappling with the same kinds of things not-quite-mature twentysomething wannabe-artists grapple with in 2008. His roommate is a slob and, worse, has just had a huge hit show even though everyone knows he's an inferior talent. His pal William (whom he helped by ghost-writing parts of his first hit play) seems unable to do wrong, career-wise, even though he's a bit of a klutz and lacks Kit's university education and sophistication. His day job (as a spy, for the Queen's henchman Walsingham) is a major headache and a time-stealer (and there may be a bit of sexual harassment going on as well). And his failed romance with an actor...well, he just doesn't want to talk about it.
Cassidy nails what's universal about a character like Marlowe; and when the focus stays on what Marlowe can and should be learning from his chaotic life, Reckoning is at its strongest. The contrast between Marlowe's academic approach to writing and Shakespeare's unexplainable writing-from-the-heart is particularly central to Cassidy's theme, and I would have liked to see it given more stage time and more clarity.
Neal J. Freeman's staging of the play is fluid and entertaining, with Hannah Shafran's minimalist set serving the show extremely well. John Eckert's lighting and Freeman's sound design are also fine, though Ana Marie A. Salamat's costumes seem fussier than they need to be. The cast, besides the excellent and aforementioned Lee, is somewhat uneven: Andrew Firda and Alex Herrald are respectively deviously commanding as Walsingham and likeably clueless as Kyd; Lara Stoby and Anna Olivia Moore have too little to do as all the play's female characters (mainly, Marlowe's two sisters); and Keith Foster registers too much as a cipher in the role of Shakespeare. Cassidy himself plays Marlowe, and he's terrific, but the role he's written himself is far less showy than Lee's, and the play's balance suffers from that.
One thing's certain: there's talent aplenty on display here. Cassidy is clearly a young theatre artist to watch.