The late British actor Laurence Olivier once stated that the King could never be played by anyone on stage. The role of the King, he felt, was interpreted by his fellow actors on stage.
A wise adage perhaps, but what do you do when the royalty is the entire focus of a playwright’s interest? This is the situation with “Zenobia,” a work by Princeton playwright Marvin Harold Cheiten, playing through Sunday, August 28, at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. The production is listed as “a new play,” but in truth it is the second full production. It was produced six years ago, in the same theater, with the same director. This outing is much stronger, both in cast and purpose.
You should know just a bit about Queen Zenobia, a real life “warrior queen” who lived in the third century A.D. She was queen of the Palmyra Empire, led a famous revolt against the Roman Empire, and took over as monarch when her husband, Odaznaitous, died in 267 A.D. (incidentally, she was his second wife.) Two years later she expanded her territory by conquering Egypt, and after just four years decided it was time to challenge Rome. She was defeated and taken to Rome as a captive by the Emperor Aurelian.
Mostly ignored by modern scholars, she has been the subject of authors as far back as Chaucer (in “The Monk’s Tale”), and composers through the years have found her an interesting topic for operas as far back as 1694.
Here, Cheiten uses blank verse (iambic pentameter, Shakespeare’s style) to give the subject matter authority, power, and dignity. He covers the final years of her busy life. Moreover, he dares to solve one of the enduring mysteries remaining to scholars. How did Zenobia die? Apparently the scholars are divided about equally between suicide, a beheading, and natural causes. Playwright Cheiten leaves no doubt.
For the most part, the evening (two hours including intermission) unfolds in a series of two-character scenes — Zenobia and her general, Zabdas (played by Jason Szamreta); Zenobia and her sister, Penelope (Katherine Bavoso, who makes the mistake many actresses make on the Intime stage, not paying close attention to diction and projection); and Zenobia and Aurelian (Ken Schwarz, who steals many scenes by subtly underplaying). Along the way we learn much of the history needed, made richer with language.
Director Dan Berkowitz once again has been brought in from Los Angeles to direct Cheiten’s work. He has three Equity union members (with special dispensation) in his cast of eight. Carolyn Vasko, a rising junior at Princeton University, is playing the title role, very appealingly. Hers is a difficult job — she must meet many tricky challenges. The role calls for her to play the love scenes so that the designated male will be entranced, but the audience will recognize that her passion is faked. Likewise, she must play the warrior scenes so that the audience will notice her strengths, but her opponents will understand her vulnerabilities. You might wonder just what Sir Laurence would say to that.
The set is simplicity itself — bare except for an occasional throne. The mood, however, is in the very capable hands of two consummate pros: Marie Miller with costumes and Christopher Gorzelnick on lights. The latter even handles smoke, which is used to suggest that Zenobia “channels” Cleopatra from time to time in monologues.
Though it is unclear why the playwright decided to remount this play after six years, it is a strong production and an unusual and rare opportunity — one that Princeton area theatergoers are not often, if ever, offered — to see a local playwright offering blank verse as a staple.
"Zenobia," Princeton Summer Theater, Hamilton Murray Theater, Princeton University. Friday and Saturday, August 26 and 27, 8 p.m.; and Sunday, August 28, 2 p.m. Allied Playwrights presents a drama written by Marvin Harold Cheiten of Princeton. Directed by Dan Berkowitz. $25. 877-238-5596 or www.smarttix.com.