Peter Whelan's talky history drama, set between 1592 and 1593, cuts to the purpose of art. There's no doubt this purpose deserves some explanation in our economic crisis, with soaring debt and unemployment, a time when the arts descend even further on the scale of our national priorities and perceptions as though they ever resided much beyond the bottom ring of sludge. Whelan's central character is atheist Christopher Marlowe (Gregory Wooddell), around whom Whelan casts an eventually suspenseful mystery leading to Marlowe's murder amidst camps of paranoid royalist Protestants and their Catholic detractors. While the play makes allusions to his Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, the author himself is presented as something of a prankster, the kid in the back of the class hurling spit wads at anything and anybody who wields authority. God heads that list, and that's where Marlowe starts in mock poems and prayers, reversing his name by praying to "Dog." And that, ultimately, is art's highest purpose, Marlowe posits to so upset the presumptions of our theology and even our existence, that new conversations and perceptions might emerge. Among Sir Walter Raleigh (Henri Lubatti) and other Elizabethan rock stars, Marlowe's young peer, Shakespeare (John Sloan), puts in the kind of appearance that calls into questions the authorship of his much of his canon. (Critic Robert Brustein posited similar questions about the originality of Shakespeare's ideas in his Pulitzer- nominated comedy, The English Channel.) Marlowe has some great insights about the distinction between the ideas of a playwright and the ideas of a play. But it's the dank blend of writers and thinkers talking about writing and thinking, and the arch grandeur of Bill Alexander's otherwise nicely sculpted staging, that renders the heart of Whelan's idea about the higher purpose of art as somehow quaint giving perverse and obviously unintended support to Marlowe's opponents, and all opponents of art as dissent. Amdist the solid and stylish ensemble, Alicia Roper's Audry Walsingham, carrying a perpetual sneer and gravel-voiced articulation, is never less than hypnotic. Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through Dec. 17. (213) 680-2772.
Sun., Nov. 9, 6:30 p.m.; Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sundays, 1 & 6:30 p.m. Starts: Nov. 9. Continues through Dec. 17, 2008