The mass-murdering title character of Christopher Marlowe’s “Tamburlaine,” a man proud to call himself “the scourge of God,” has never been big on apologies. Not for him the regretful introspection of short-tempered Shakespearean tyrants like Macbeth, Lear or even nasty old Richard III.
Self-knowledge, who needs it? Being a world conqueror means never having to say you’re sorry.
It feels only fitting that Michael Boyd’s improbably enjoyable “Tamburlaine, Parts I and II,” which opened on Sunday night at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, should make no excuses for its redemption-proof hero or for the long and bloody plays over which he rules.
Embodied by a truly titanic John Douglas Thompson in this Theater for a New Audience production, Tamburlaine is a force of nature in the sense that typhoons, tidal waves and earthquakes are. Would you ever try to explain why such phenomena behave as they do? All you can do is sit back open-mouthed, observing the carnage and ducking the flying body parts.
Now who, you might ask, could possibly be entertained by such a sorry, gory epic of unrelenting destruction, in which power-crazed narcissists scramble for supremacy? Well, you might want to check the recent most-watched television and movie lists, or talk to the legions who binge on “Game of Thrones.”
For those who like to think they wear their brows higher, “Tamburlaine” (1587) has a classy pedigree. It is an early and illustrious paradigm of the blank-verse tragedy and is thought to have wielded considerable influence over Marlowe’s successors in the Elizabethan theater, including one William Shakespeare.
In 16th-century London, it was a big, fat hit. In the succeeding years, its reputation waned steadily, even as others works by Marlowe (“Doctor Faustus,” “Edward II”) have enjoyed sustained popularity. On the page, “Tamburlaine” is most notable for its relentlessly metronomic plot (he comes, he sees, he conquers, again and again) and a concentration of exotic proper nouns to match its body count. You can understand why T. S. Eliot witheringly described Marlowe’s verse as “pretty simple huffe-snuffe bombast.”
That hasn’t stopped the occasional ambitious director from trying to resurrect it, usually with eye-glazing results. “It is like spending an evening being run over by some outrageously persistent Centurion tank,” Benedict Nightingale wrote in The New York Times of Peter Hall’s 1976 production for the National Theater. “The play is vast, majestic and exceedingly monotonous.”
But in a diary he kept during rehearsals for that “Tamburlaine,” Mr. Hall described having a revelation about the play that still applies: “It reeks of the theater as the circus reeks of sawdust” and horse dung, he said. “It is not an intellectual’s fantasy.”
Mr. Boyd, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 2002 to 2012, is operating from the same idea. His version of “Tamburlaine” is packed with pomp and pageantry and stylized violence, but also with a coruscating theatrical wit that lets us chuckle uneasily even as we recoil from the events portrayed.
Trimming Marlowe’s two five-act plays to three hours of stage time (with a half-hour intermission), Mr. Boyd manages to balance the distancing effects of a Brechtian epic with the rock’ em-sock ’em thrills of a Michael Bay action flick.
And through ingeniously theatrical means, he highlights the repetitiveness of Marlowe’s text to bring home a sense of human inhumanity as it’s practiced in war, as an unending and unavoidable cycle. Characters die (a whole lot of them) and are then reincarnated by the same performers as other characters, ready to be slaughtered anew.
Designed by Tom Piper, with lighting by Matthew Richards and sound by Jane Shaw, the production begins with the double-remove of a 16th-century costume drama set in 14th-century Persia (and beyond). But by its conclusion, we have slyly been insinuated into the 21st century. Not that you necessarily register that transition while you’re watching this “Tamburlaine,” which makes a point of never giving you much time to think.
In that sense, the show matches its villainous hero. As portrayed by Mr. Thompson, the dazzling classical actor whose previous work for Theater for a New Audience includes Macbeth and Othello, Tamburlaine is all ravenous appetite — man reduced to his most basic hunger to possess and control.
As this Scythian shepherd-turned-soldier-turned-all-usurping-monarch growls, roars and sings Marlowe’s verse, iambic pentameter becomes the meter of unsleeping ambition. As Tamburlaine sees it, he’s just doing what comes naturally. “Nature, that framed us of four elements,” he says, “Warring within our breasts for regiment/Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds.”
The rest of the very fine cast, who seem to be having a great time killing and being killed, make it clear that their characters have aspiring minds, too. Everybody wants to rule the world. (Mr. Piper’s design scheme makes poetic use of a multiplicity of gold crowns.)
It’s just that nobody can match Tamburlaine’s bloody single-mindedness. This, after all, is a man who thinks nothing of killing his own son when the lad proves cowardly, of burning down a city because his beloved happened to die there (of natural causes) or of harnessing former world leaders to pull his chariot.
The standouts in the large, multipurpose ensemble include Chukwudi Iwuji and Patrice Johnson Chevannes (as imperial tyrants in their own right); Paul Lazar (as two shortsighted and buffoonish monarchs); Matthew Amendt (noble vengeance incarnate in several forms); and Merritt Janson, as the Egyptian princess Zenocrate, who becomes Tamburlaine’s most willing queen. (If you want to know why, as the old song says, it’s in his kiss.)
The primal rhythms of warfare are echoed in Arthur Solari’s propulsive, percussive music, which evokes a world in which storms always threaten, and thunder rumbles forever. And when it rains, just so you know, it rains blood.
Red, as sticky as new paint, is a dominant color here, and it shows up in a highly imaginative variety of forms. Tamburlaine wears it like the height of fashion, though he probably thinks it is ichor, not blood, that runs through his own veins.
This guy likes to say he could go into direct combat with God and win. When Mr. Thompson makes the boast, with mesmerizing confidence, you’re inclined to think he’s right.
“Tamburlaine, Parts I and II” is playing at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, at Lafayette Avenue, Fort Greene, Brooklyn; 866-811-4111, tfana.org. Through Dec. 21. Running time: 3 hours.
review by Ben Brantley via nytimes.com