THEATER | Theatre Pro Rata's "Dido, Queen of Carthage" at Gremlin Theatre: Every god needs a BFF

Per Luminarium.org, an online anthology of English literature, Algernon Charles Swinburne says of Christopher Marlowe, "He is the greatest discoverer, the most daring and inspired pioneer, in all our poetic literature. Before him there was neither genuine blank verse nor a genuine tragedy in our language. After his arrival the way was prepared, the paths were made straight, for Shakespeare."

I knew from an upbringing rich with literature that Christopher Marlowe was a big deal. But other than the occasional reference in high school and college lit classes, I've heard little detail. That was part of my motivation to review Dido, Queen of Carthage, being staged through March 20th by Theatre Pro Rata at St. Paul's Gremlin Theatre. My other motivation included TPR's home page invitation noting that the opening night would begin with a "Smoldering Soiree" and end with a "Bonfire of the Voracities." Since it's Minnesota in early March, I'd be nuts to turn all that heat down!

dido, queen of carthage, presented at gremlin theatre through march 20. for tickets ($14-$41, sliding scale) and information, see theatreprorata.org.

If you're at all intimidated by Elizabethan language, you'll be grateful to follow TPR's detailed program book. With a sense of humor and straightforward facts, the audience is guided through not only the cast and artistic staff, but sections including a "Guide to the Gods" featuring Greek and Roman names as well as admittedly simplified descriptions, an "About the Play" that cuts to the chase, and an interesting paragraph from director Carin Bratlie. These notes help provide adequate background for a very quirky story.

The play starts with a little piece of heaven: frisky gods including Jupiter (Andy Chambers), Juno (Noë Tallen), Venus (Nicole Joy Frethem), Cupid (Jaime Kleiman), Mercury (Grant Henderson), and Ganymede (Stuart Gates), a mortal-turned-god who was kidnapped by a lovestruck Jupiter so he could be the king's BFF. Costumes are minimal yet effective, and a good lookin' cast helps you believe that Venus is indeed a goddess of eternal youth and beauty and that, in general, gods have it pretty sweet. On stage, simple backdrops including pedestals and drapes transform into alters and waves as the play unfolds. I was impressed at the way much ado could be made with nothing (basically). Also, kudos to the adorable shell light covers that provide uplighting. Well done detail!

It's important to meet the gods in the beginning, as they eventually send messages down to the mortals and wreak havoc as gods are seemingly predestined to do. It's good to have a visual (i.e. Mercury does indeed have wings). The next main action involves the Trojans, led by Aeneas (Christopher Kehoe, a Daily Planet contributor) and Achates (Ben Tallen), who wash up on the shores of Libya (Carthage), which is being ruled by Queen Dido (Becka Linder). They're quite tired as they've been sailing around the Mediterranean Sea (sans respite at Club Med) for six years after escaping from the Greeks and the fallen city of Troy. With help from Cupid (Kleiman) as directed by Venus (Nicole Joy Frethem), Queen Dido falls in love with an impressively handsome Aeneas. This is a win/win situation, since Queen Dido is a widow and she has money and she's beautiful. Out of love, she repairs the fleet, provides homes, and gives her heart to Aeneas. He falls in love, too, but keeps it in check better than she does (most likely because Cupid didn't shoot him full of Love Potion #9).

Eventually, Aeneas is reminded by the messenger Mercury that he is needed, once again, in Italy. It is his destiny to return. Although Queen Dido tries a few tricks (like having her staff steal sails and oars) and admits to Aeneas that should he leave her, her will to live will vanish, and although Aeneas quite kindly says something like "don't do that, I really love you too," he leaves anyway. Destiny is funny that way.

Quite a bit happens in between including jealous lovers, maids-in-waiting, frolicking in the forests, and makeout sessions during thunderstorms, so you have adequate time to understand that this is, overall, a nice gig for all involved. The actors do a fabulous job with sighs and facial expressions, as well as the timing of their lines (dramatic pauses mastered) so you laugh, you get goosebumps, and you feel bad for the heartbroken. Understanding the language is transcended by simple human interactions that say it all.

There are a few glorious quotes to walk away with, including:

O love! O hate! O cruel women's hearts,
That imitate the moon in every change
And like the planets ever love to range.
(Iarbus)

Or:

Heaven, envious of our joys, is waxen pale,
And when we whisper, then the stars fall down
To be partakers of our honey talk.
(Dido)

I won't tell you the ending, as it's a play worth seeing, for sure, but I can tell you that it ain't pretty—except for the lovely fabric flames that engulf the stage.

There never really seemed to be a "Smoldering Soiree," although a sassy-in-a-good-way bartender was available to hand out complimentary wine, and a couple of the gals met the audience wearing satin and bling when I walked in. I didn't stay to see if the "Bonfire of the Voracities" happened, as I had some doubts about it. But it was a full house at the Gremlin that night, and I think that means that the gods will watch over this performance's run and bless it with success.

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Betsy Gabler

Betsy Gabler is a full-time marketing manager for a local not-for-profit, a part-time graphic designer, and consults about small business social media and development strategies. She has a M.S. from the U of MN in visual communication and design. Being a supportive aunt is her favorite thing in life.