Christopher Fahmie as hard-boiled private eye Kit Marlowe

What do you get when you take film noir, throw in a heaping helping of classical mythology, and top it off with a dollop of Jacobean conceit? Words that sound like poetry, a trip to the underworld, the brink of salvation, and the depths of despair.

Katherine Sherman’s Christopher Marlowe’s Chloroform Dreams is an exciting, high energy, fantasy mashup of high- and lowbrow dramatic entertainments. Kit Marlowe is a private dick who is in love with Daphne Fairchild, a fair child indeed, one with a nasty junk habit and mean-as-the-devil dealer named Ingram Frizer (pronounced “Freezer.”) Along the way these three principles run into a cast of underworld characters — The Starving Artist, Tommy the Kid, Eleanor del Toro, and The Ferryman — who evoke the grandeur and mythos of their epic journey.

Much of the story is dictated by the requirements of genre: boy is in love with girl; boy loses girl; boy goes to Hell and back to save her. Christopher Marlowe’s Chloroform Dreams appeals to the viewer by casting a dense web of allusion knotted with careful attention to language. (Ms. Sherman has obviously read a lot of books and seen a lot of movies.) If we were to play the genre genealogy game, we would definitely charge W. S. Burroughs with paternity. The grandparents are Dasheill Hammett and Rainer Maria Rilke, and the great-grandparents are Webster and Ford. (By the way, I hope you saw Ford’s Tis Pity She’s a Whore at BAM, even if it did rankle in the nostrils of a famous critic.) Every phrase in Chloroform Dreams resonates across the common elements of noir and tragedy: illicit love (particularly narcissism), a dark journey to uncover the truth, an anti-hero, and the Underworld. The play is at its best when it synthesizes these elements in new and surprising ways.

Valerie Redd as Daphne

But if you don’t have a taste for old stuff, you can still get your money’s worth watching the performers. Sheila Joon, who has three parts that couldn’t be more unlike each other, stands out as a versatile and supple actor. Michael Markham as Frizer reminds one of Željko Ivanek at his creepiest. But the casting director had a stroke of genius when she cast Christopher Fahmie as Marlowe (I hope against hope that he goes by Kit in his real life) and Valerie Redd as Daphne. Not only are they talented actors, they are also physically pulchritudinous, easy on the eyes, a couple of dimes. You get my drift. Molten lasciviousness oozes out of them like cheap similes from a hack writer. Someone needs to make a movie out of this play because, let me tell you right now, the camera adores these two.

It bears repeating, Ms. Sherman is a talented writer with an ear for dialogue. For the first hour Christopher Marlowe’s Chloroform Dreams is a treat for the literary ear. It is clear, however, that Ms. Sherman isn’t as seasoned as her literary heroes. The one thing missing from Chloroform Dreams is a plausible reason for the action to continue for as long as it does. Genre does the heavy lifting for the plot, and especially towards the end it seems as though scenes have been written more as an excuse for elaborate wordplay than to tell a story. Ultimately, there is no reason to believe that Daphne wants to be saved by Marlowe (that is, love does not save the day), and after two hours of high drama, the resolution comes faster than a pubescent boy’s orgasm. (And it’s just as fantastical.) In the last analysis however, Christopher Marlowe’s Chloroform Dreams is a fun show that gives earnest of great things to come for this group of artists.

Christopher Marlowe’s Chloroform Dreams

The Red Room

Through May 5th

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