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Theater review: Elizabethan spies play dirty in new Utah-produced play, ‘Shaking the Earth’

SHARE Theater review: Elizabethan spies play dirty in new Utah-produced play, ‘Shaking the Earth’

“SHAKING THE EARTH,” through June 22, Third Space Studios, 247 W. Center St., Provo, $12 general admission, $10 students, military and seniors (eventbrite.com/e/shaking-the-earth); running time: 2 hours 15 minutes, 10-minute intermission.

PROVO — Mahonri Stewart, a local producer, director and playwright, has been trying to produce “Shaking the Earth” for half a decade.

“Things kept getting in the way,” Stewart wrote in a press release. “For example, the space we were scheduled to perform in a couple of years ago literally had its roof cave in. But … we weren’t going to stop until the play was accomplished.”

The new play “Shaking the Earth,” written by Utah playwright Frances Smeath, is finally being produced by Prospero Arts and Media, a local arts group headed by Stewart. It takes place in Third Space Studios, a charmingly haphazard venue with abstract paintings and a collage of maps on the walls. Comfortably worn couches provide seats for the audience in front of a small stage. This is the first play Third Space has put on.

“Shaking the Earth” begins with the all-male cast gathering onstage. Described by an audience member as “a brilliant cast,” the ensemble gives a good name to local Utah actors. Jared Dukepoo, playing Thomas Hariot, stepped forward on Friday's opening night and began by asking the audience to suspend disbelief and listen to this story, breaking the fourth wall in a nod to the introduction of “Romeo and Juliet.”

Cast members who are not in a particular scene sit on chairs that line the stage, waiting to enter or to move props for a scene change. Scene transitions are fluid and don't distract from the action. While the set is quite sparse, this evokes the Elizabethan time period, when plays had extremely limited sets and audience members were required to conjure up the stated setting in their imagination. It also ensures that the small space doesn't detract from the play's story.

The real action begins in the second scene when, after a particularly boring Sunday sermon from a classmate, Christopher Marlowe — noted playwright, contemporary of Shakespeare and "Shaking the Earth's" main character — decides to give up on his degree from Cambridge and his future as a preacher. His well-connected friends secure him a spot in court as a courier, which turns out to be code for “spy.”

Cody Eckman as Robert Poley in Frances Smeath's "Shaking the Earth." His character, the villain of the play, plots to gain power in Elizabethan England.

Cody Eckman as Robert Poley in Frances Smeath’s “Shaking the Earth.” His character, the villain of the play, plots to gain power in Elizabethan England.

Bryn Dalton, Provided by Mahonri Stewart

Adam Argyle plays Marlowe well, if a bit aggressively. His impassioned speeches occasionally turn to yelling, but on the whole, Argyle gives the audience a compelling idea of what Marlowe may have been like.

Marlowe’s job as spy quickly turns unpleasant. Upset by the torture of Catholic priests (arranging mass was punishable by the death penalty, and Catholics were regarded as traitors to the queen), Marlowe looks for a way out of his job, only to realize that power-hungry spymaster Robert Poley (Cody Eckman) has a death-grip on his loyalty. If Marlowe disobeys or tries to run away, Poley will threaten his friends and family.

While an intense play, “Shaking the Earth” still finds time to poke fun at its own seriousness. At one point, Marlowe bemoans his age and wonders if a younger man could help him write a good comedy. He suggests bringing in Shakespeare for a collaboration, which earned a laugh from the audience.

Though Eckman is unable to fully pull off the murderous, scheming villain, his obsession with power renders him a chilling foe. With threats, secrets and occasionally force, Poley keeps his lackeys, including Marlowe, in line. Even those with more power than him, such as Thomas Walsingham (Zachary Ballard), the secretary to the queen who is supposedly in charge of Poley and his network of couriers, are kept in Poley’s grasp.

Arguably the best scene in the play comes when Poley exercises his full control over Walsingham. Poley explains that Walsingham’s lover, his valet Ingram Frizer (Sam Kleyh), was merely acting, and not only is Frizer loyal to Poley, but the two will expose Walsingham’s homosexuality to the world if he does not obey. Poley’s cruel disregard for human feeling underscores his love of power. Throughout Poley and Frizer’s gloating, Ballard as Walsingham put on an excellent performance even while saying only a few lines. His facial expressions and body language were astoundingly expressive.

The play came to a head when Poley, Frizer, and another of Poley’s cronies, Nicholas Skeres (Robert Bahr), confront Marlowe. Marlowe enrages Frizer and Skeres and they lash out, killing him at last. Poley, furious, dismisses his two men, leaving him alone with Marlowe’s body. However, Poley was followed, so there are other witnesses to Marlowe’s murder.

The moments after Marlowe’s murder are jarring for audience members. No one, even his friends who apprehend Poley in the room with the body, seem particularly sad that Marlowe was gone. Perhaps they know he wanted freedom from Poley. Regardless, the transition to accusing Poley without lamenting Marlowe’s death felt rushed and odd.

Though he is locked up for a time, Hariot and other of Marlowe’s friends eventually arrange for Poley to be let free, stating they want to extend mercy because they don’t want to become like him. This ending gives the entire play a hint of optimism, a belief in the possibility of redemption.

In the final scene, one of the characters stated “goodness in life is so precious, it mustn’t be dribbled away in envy, hatred or pain.” This poetic realization is as relevant today as it was in Elizabethan times, a good reminder for all in attendance to appreciate the good in life.

If you go …

What: Prospero Arts and Media's production of "Shaking the Earth"

When: through June 22

Where: Third Space Studios, 247 W. Center St., Provo

How much: $12 general admission, $10 students, seniors and military

Web: prosperoarts.weebly.com