I have the suspicion that the germ of the idea for Katherine Sherman’s play Christopher Marlowe’s Chloroform Dreams came from someone, drunk at a party, confusing Christopher Marlowe (real-life Elizabethan playwright and spy) with Philip Marlowe (Raymond Chandler’s fictional detective), much as I imagine Dan Bern’s song “Marilyn” came from someone confusing Arthur Miller with Henry Miller. Whatever the genesis, Sherman has delivered a strange and poetic drama that explores all sorts of storytelling.
The play is nominally set in 30’s noir, and begins with Marlowe (Christopher Fahmie) getting chloroformed by two goons. After some disjointed hard-boiled narration, we are introduced to Daphne (Valerie Redd), his on-again, off-again girlfriend. Things were great once, but now she’s back on the heroin, and going to the seedy lair of Frizer (Michael Markham) to get her fix. The first act of the play is a tarted-up retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice, where Marlowe/Orpheus looks back not for love, but for the smothering possessiveness that made Daphne/Eurydice have the wanderlust in the first place. Other sections of the play recall the fairytales Donkeyskin and East of the Sun West of the Moon, and Marlowe keeps trying to tell the plot of his romantic epic Hero and Leander to Daphne as a love story (in real life C. Marlowe died before he could complete the tragic end of the narrative poem, and similarly here it is cut off to give a nominal happy ending). The play is dreamily disjointed and confusing, but has occasional bursts of fascinating lucidity. Though just whose dream this is remains a puzzle- perspectives shift and form is fractured as the play goes on, and modern references creep in from time to time, irritating the noir milieu with strangely juvenile and unresonant snippets of lines from Pearl Jam, Mötley Crüe, and Salt ‘n’ Pepa.
Those looking for actual Christopher Marlowe are likely to be disappointed- the references are fleeting. The sheets of Marlowe and Daphne’s love nest are crudely daubed with the opening lines of “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”, Frizer’s two goons are named after the men who were involved in the barroom altercation that led to Marlowe’s real-life death, and though Marlowe attempts to recount Hero and Leander (in Sherman’s own hip verse), the actual plot of this play has little to do with any of it. And for a man who is famous for his (possibly apocryphal) quote "all they that love not tobacco and boysare fools", and who wrote Edward II (a play about a gay king), and included an entire section in Hero and Leander where the god Neptune attempts to seduce the beautiful Leander, there are only minor allusions to homosexuality; this Marlowe is a straight shooter (at least now that he’s met Daphne)- but then perhaps this is an obscure nod to the Hays Code, which restricted mentions or depictions of homosexuality in the film adaptation of the P. Marlowe movie The Big Sleep.
Trivia: According to Wikipedia, Raymond Chandler was said to have taken the name “Marlowe” from Marlowe House, to which he belonged during his time at Dulwich College. Marlowe House was named for Christopher Marlowe. So there we go.
The cast is great, especially the women- Redd is a gloriously wounded Daphne. Sheila Joon is spectacular in a trio of supporting roles, and Curry Whitmire is similarly versatile, taking up the other three supporting roles with hilarious aplomb. Markham is appropriately ominous, but doesn’t really have much else to do as Frizer. Fahmie is lovely (as Marlowe says of Leander himself: “Some swore he was a maid in man's attire / For in his looks were all that men desire”), but doesn’t always seem to have a grasp on the intricate poetic language of the text (at least on the night I attended).
Philip Gates directs with great attention to detail, and makes wonderful use of the small and challenging stage space of The Red Room (helped along with the great set design by Joshua David Bishop); there are a few inspired visual touches. Kalere Payton’s costumes are gorgeous and noir-appropriate and especially allow for very fast changes for the two cast chameleons. Will Fulton’s sound design keeps the smoky saxophone going. Alana Jacoby’s lighting design keeps getting confounded by the limits of the space and the heights of the actors.