Rough Seas: Taffety Punk’s Wonderfully Strange Pericles

The first edition of Pericles was published in 1609, but scholars only guess about the date of the play’s original composition.

One thing I love about Washington, DC is its abundant offerings of Shakespeare. And not just abundant, but diverse. One can enjoy large mainstream productions by the Shakespeare Theatre Company and the Folger Theatre, as well as small offbeat productions by the Taffety Punk and Brave Spirits theatre companies.

Taffety Punk, in particular, presents some of the most innovative Shakespeare in town. Once a year, the company takes over the Folger Theater to present a “Bootleg Shakespeare” play. The actors assemble and rehearse for the first time on the morning of the one-time-only performance. These wacky, often rough and uneven productions have a delightful energy that attracts packed houses year after year. Last Monday night’s Bootleg Shakespeare was no exception.

Directed by Lise Bruneau, Taffety Punk’s Pericles included many strong performances. Joel David Santner was flawless as the young Pericles. Smiling with his arms outstretched as he slowly bounced over imaginary waves, he seemed to enjoy his many sea voyages, each time drawing laughs. Santner displayed great chemistry with Esther Williamson who played Pericle’s wife, Thaisa. Ashley Strand’s performance as Simonides, Thaisa’s father, was outstanding.

While the Taffety Punk crew played Pericles mostly for laughs, Chris Genebeach gave a moving performance as the older Pericles reunited with his daughter, Marina, played by Amanda Forstrom in yet another fine performance.

Amy Domingues’ cello added a haunting, beautiful tone that gave the production a pleasant continuity.

If not the filthiest of Shakespeare’s plays, Pericles certainly ranks as one of his strangest – which makes it perfect for Bootleg Shakespeare. The play begins with a story of incest involving a King Antiochus and his daughter. With their violation of the sexual taboo stated in direct terms, the king and daughter repeatedly are vilified as sinners. Fire from heaven eventually “[shrivels] up their bodies.”

Pericles was first published in 1609, but we don’t know when Shakespeare wrote it. Sources for the play date from the 14th century. Charlton Ogburn placed Shakespeare’s original composition in the late 1570’s. If Shakespeare did write Pericles during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, I believe she would have banned it.

Incest had to be a very sensitive topic for Elizabeth. Her mother, Anne Boleyn, was executed for that crime. A contemporary account of a relationship between young princess Elizabeth and her stepfather, Thomas Seymour, strongly suggests incest.

And there’s another reason why Elizabeth would have disliked Pericles.

In 1648, when she was just 14, Elizabeth’s translation of Margarite de Navarre’s The Mirror or Glass of the Sinful Soul was published. Elizabeth’s book is a spiritual meditation on “universal kinship,” the idea that since everyone is a child of God, every carnal relationship is incestuous. An odd text indeed for princess Elizabeth to be translating in her stepparents’ household.

The Queen easily could have thought that Shakespeare’s Pericles was mocking The Mirror or Glass of the Sinful Soul. Here’s an excerpt of the text that Pericles reads about the princess daughter’s relationship with her father:

I sought a husband, in which labour

I found that kindness in a father:

He’s father, son, and husband mild;

I mother, wife, and yet his child.

And here’s an excerpt from Elizabeth’s The Mirror or Glass of the Sinful Soul:

O what union is this, since (through faith) I am sure of Thee. And now I may call Thee son, father, spouse, and brother. Father, brother, son, husband.

In the fourth act of Pericles, Bawd orders Bolt to “crack the glass of [Marina’s] virginity” (emphasis mine). To me, Elizabeth could have viewed this as a swipe at her, the celebrated Virgin Queen and author of The Mirror or Glass of the Sinful Soul. The Queen died six years before the first edition of Pericles appeared.

Given her personal history, it’s not difficult to see why Elizabeth might have banned Pericles. It would explain the puzzle of why the play has romantic elements that sound, as David Bevington has observed, oddly old-fashion for a 1609 publication date.

Leave it to Taffety Punk to make an odd play even odder. Chris Marino as the incestuous King Antiochus looked like the spawn of Goldilocks and the Mad Hatter. Kimberly Gilbert was the dominatrix version of the brothel manager Bawd, Southern-style. Her fire-red bodice looked about two sizes too small, pushing her flesh into her armpits (hope she didn’t hurt herself). With a hilarious drawl and whip in hand, Gilbert’s Bawd dominated all the scenes she was in – and the other people in them. Her side kick, the pimp Bolt (James Flanagan) was equally hilarious. Flanagan articulated his lines like a Mississippian with great comedic aplomb.

Based on what I saw Monday night, I have little doubt that had Taffety Punk performed Pericles during Elizabeth’s reign, she would have ordered all the players shackled and flogged – and some of them might have enjoyed it.

Taffety Punk’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost”

Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 E. Capitol St., Washington, D.C. Theater to stage, axis view II

Besides the seating, not much has changed in the Folger Theatre since 1932, when this photograph was taken.

Yesterday morning I arrived at the Folger Theatre just after 11. The line of people waiting to get free tickets to Taffety Punk Theatre Company’s “Bootleg Shakespeare” production of Love’s Labour’s Lost already stretched around the building into the Elizabethan garden, that is to say, the line was long, lengthily extended, occupied by a large number of persons standing, meaning on two legs without moving, motionless as it were, except for their lips.

I know, my Holofernes imitation needs work, but so much for that.

“He’s nuts,” said a woman to another woman ahead of me in the line. She sounded like an actress. “He wants to play the lead role in Hamlet and direct himself, too. I told him nobody can play Hamlet and direct at the same time.”

“Kenneth Branagh did it,” I said, unable to hold my tongue. “Branagh played Hamlet in the film he directed. It’s the gold standard for Hamlet.”

“The guy I’m talking about is only sixteen,” she said. She looked just a few years older than that.

“You’re right,” I said, “sixteen is a little young.”

I put on my headphones and minded my own business. Then I thought maybe sixteen wasn’t too young. After all, some scholars (some of which probably are smarter than Holofernes) think that William of Stratford wrote Hamlet in 1589, when he was only twenty-five, if you can you believe that.

It makes sense to call Taffety Punk’s annual Folger event “Bootleg Shakespeare,” because the company breaks rules. Actors rehearse together for the first and only time on the day of the first and only performance. Costumes and props are strictly make-shift, and the director sits in the front row with the playbook, prompting actors when they forget a line. Whenever the director shouts “flourish,” the audience shouts back, “toot-toot-la-doo!”

These are rowdy affairs. Last year’s spectators watched Hamlet run around the stage buck naked. “Bootleg Shakespeare” always proves to be a unique experience.

Last night’s Love’s Labour’s Lost was no exception. Directed by Lise Bruneau, the strong cast was led by Tonya Beckman (Princess of France), Dan Crane (Prince of Navarre), Esther Williamson (Rosaline), Shawn Fagan (Berowne), and Jamie Beaman (Boyet).

In my opinion, Eric Hissom (Don Adriano de Armado) and Kimberly Gilbert (Moth) stole the show.

With a thick yet completely intelligible Spanish accent, Hissom shifted easily between grandiosity and melancholy playing the magnificent, love struck Armado, to uproarious comic effect. Gilbert, as the page Moth distracted by reading the Kama Sutra, was his perfect foil.

Max Reinhardsen as Costard was also excellent, as was Victoria Reinsel as Jaquenetta. Dressed like Daisy May in low-cut red polka dots and blue jean hot pants, she was sultry as sultry gets. The venerable Ted van Griethuysen entered an appearance as Marcarde.

The Folger Theater looks like an Elizabethan Renaissance playhouse. Small and intimate, it’s the best venue in town for seeing Shakespeare, in my opinion. Watching “Bootleg Shakespeare” there, admiring the actors who’ve rehearsed only briefly with each other, I imagine this must be a little like what 16th century playgoers at The Globe experienced, where the players staged a different play every day.

“Bootleg Shakespeare” is a must see — but you’ll have to wait until next year. Stay informed about next summer’s production by visiting Taffety Punk’s website and signing up for the newsletter.

Next up for Taffety Punk: an all-female production of Titus Andronicus.

Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth: Was He Also Henry the Ninth?

henry-de-vere-and-southampton-1621-two-most-noble-henries

Two Henries: in this early 17th century woodcut, Henry Wriothesely, the 3rd Earl of Southampton is on the right. Southampton was General of the Horse in Ireland. His companion is Henry de Vere, the 18th Earl of Oxford.

I recently enjoyed the Folger Theatre’s fine production of Shakespeare’s Henry V starring Zach Appelman as the King. Appelman’s amazing performance makes me think he’s our next great Shakespearian actor, joining the ranks of Olivier, Gieguld, and Branagh.

I read Henry V before watching Appelman conduct his tour de force on the imaginary battlefields of 15th century France.

For me, each new reading of a Shakespeare play is like listening to a Mozart or Beethoven symphony: something new always emerges, some quality or insight about a character not captured before, a phrase that strikes me (“Every subject’s duty is the king’s; but every subject’s soul is his own”), or fresh appreciation for the breadth of the author’s word craft which, in Henry V, he extends à la langue français.

This time I discovered something that perhaps heretofore has gone unnoticed: it’s possible that Henry V was promoting a candidate to succeed Queen Elizabeth I to the English throne at the end of the 16th century.

The Chorus, at the beginning of Act V of the play, describes throngs of English citizens welcoming back Henry (“Harry”) who’s returned victorious from France. The Chorus compares this homecoming to one Caesar received:

“The mayor and all his brethren in best sort,
Like to the senators of the antique Rome,
With the plebeians swarming at their heels,
Go forth and fetch their conquering Caesar in:
As, by a lower but loving likelihood,
Were now the general of our gracious empress,
As in good time he may, from Ireland coming,
Bringing rebellion broached on his sword,
How many would the peaceful city quit,
To welcome him! much more, and much more cause,
Did they this Harry.”

Scholars have long agreed that the Chorus’s speech is a contemporary reference to the campaign of Robert Devereaux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, to quash rebels in Ireland, which dates the play to around 1599. In the above-quoted text, Essex would be the “general,” and Queen Elizabeth I “our gracious empress.”

I’ll come back to the Chorus’s speech. For now it can be observed that Elizabeth in 1599 had about four years to live, with her succession undecided.

To say it was difficult to discuss who should be England’s next ruler while Elizabeth was still living is an understatement. Under the treason statute at the time, it was a crime punishable by death to suggest that anyone else should be the reigning monarch.

If someone wanted to promote a candidate for King without being hanged or beheaded, then subtlety and plausible deniability, expressed through words and phrases with double meanings, would be the order of the day.

Of course, the double entendre was something Shakespeare was very good at.

We know that Shakespeare had a special relationship with one particular courtier in Queen Elizabeth’s court: Henry Wriothesely, the 3rd Earl of Southampton.

Shakespeare dedicated two long poems, Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece, to Southampton. Several biographers of Southampton (including Constance C. Stopes and A.L. Rowse) agree that Southampton is the Fair Youth (or “lovely boy”) in Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

These circumstances show that Shakespeare held Southampton very dear and would have been highly interested in his future.

As mentioned above, the Chorus’s speech in Act V contains a contemporary reference to the Earl of Essex’s military campaign in Ireland. Southampton accompanied Essex on that campaign, a fact that leads to the “new” thing I noticed.

The line, “the general of our gracious empress,” has long been thought of referring to Essex and the Queen. On the other hand, Southampton’s title in Ireland also was “general” – General of the Horse. That the Chorus is referring to Southampton in the speech rather than to Essex is further supported by the last three lines:

How many would the peaceful city quit,
To welcome him! much more, and much more cause,
Did they this Harry (my empahsis).

Admittedly, one can interpret the word “this” different ways, but my point is that the “him” in the second line could refer to another “Harry,” i.e., the “general” Henry, the Earl of Southampton, whom Shakespeare is comparing to “this” Harry, i.e., Henry V.

Under this interpretation, the Chorus is expressing the hope that Southampton returns victorious from Ireland to the same type of welcome that Henry V received when he returned from France.

And then there’s the Chorus’s speech that begins Act II, which describes the traitors’ plot to kill Henry V:

And by their hands this grace of kings must die,
If hell and treason hold their promises,
Ere he take ship for France, and in Southampton.

The first meaning of “Southampton” is the city from which Henry V embarked for France. However, I believe it would have been difficult for the audience – at least for any courtier – listening to the play in 1599 not to think of Henry, Earl of Southampton as well.

Moreover, there is a logical interpretation attaching this second (or double) meaning to “Southampton” in the speech quoted above.

For “this grace of kings” to die “in Southampton” would mean that it must first be living there, and if the audience considered “Southampton” in the sense of the earl, it could interpret the Chorus’s statement as meaning that “this grace of kings” lives in Henry Wriothesely who, if he were to ascend to the throne, would be crowned Henry the Ninth.

If you think my argument is a stretch, you’re right, it is. But given the treason statutes, in a sense it has to be. Shakespeare would have had to be cryptic if he were advertising Henry Wriothesely as a candidate for the throne.

If Shakespeare was suggesting that the “grace of kings” resided in Southampton, the “general” he hoped would return from Ireland to be greeted like a King, what possible claim could Southampton have had for the throne?

Recent scholarship addresses that very question. If you’re interested, I suggest you check out the work of Hank Whittemore and Charles Beauclerk.

New Shakespeare Derivative Works Coming to Washington, D.C.

The remainder of the 2012-2013 Shakespeare season in Washington, D.C. offers an eclectic mix of some of his most popular plays and several derivative works.

Through October 28, the Chesapeake Theater Company is staging Richard III, certainly one of the most-performed plays in the world, in nearby Ellicott City, Maryland. Set outdoors among the marvelous stone ruins of Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, the company’s “Moveable Shakespeare” production directed by Ian Gallanar has the audience following the players from scene to scene. According to one review, it’s worth seeing just to take in Vince Eisenson’s portrayal of the demented monarch.

From November 15 through December 30, the Shakespeare Theatre Company will stage the tried-and-true A Midsummer Night’s Dream, under the direction of Ethan McSweeny.

Mignon Nevada (1886-1971) as Ophelia in Ambroise Thomas’s opera, Hamlet, circa 1910. Washington National Opera performed the opera at the Kennedy Center in 2010.

In December, “Enter Ophelia, distracted,” created by Kimberly Gilbert with Shakespeare’s text, will be performed by Taffety Punk Theatre Company, directed by Marcus Kyd. In my opinion, Taffety Punk produces the most innovative Shakespeare in town. The upcoming show is described as immersing “Ophelia into a sonic landscape that frames and follows her descent into madness.” Gilbert recently played Ophelia in the company’s “bootleg” production of the Bad Quarto of Hamlet. If the new show is anything like the company’s last one, a musical concert version of The Rape of Lucrece in which Gilbert played the lead (and bass guitar, too), Enter Ophelia, distracted should be special indeed.

The new year marches in with Folger Theatre’s production of Henry V, directed by Robert Richmond (January 22-March 3). As part of the Folger’s lecture series, Robert Shapiro will speak on January 25 about the Earl of Essex’s late 16th century military campaign against rebels in Ireland and its link to the play.

From February 21-24, the Catholic University’s Hartke Theatre will stage “Brutus,” an abridged version of Julius Caesar directed by Allison Fuentes. According to the theater’s website, this version “refocuses the classic tale from Brutus’s viewpoint, revealing the path toward his ultimate ‘call to fate’ and contemplating how thin the line can be between hero and villain.” Sounds fascinating.

In a similar vein, from March 28-June 2, the Shakespeare Theatre Company follows with a production of Coriolanus as part of its “The Hero/Traitor Repertory.” David Muse will direct Shakespeare’s tale of the proud soldier-turned-traitor who ultimately redeems himself in tragedy. Coriolanus also has links to the Earl of Essex, as observed in a review of Ralph Fienne’s excellent film version of the play.

A poster for the Federal Theatre Project in Los Angeles, which Congress cancelled in 1939 due to the project’s left-wing leanings.

From April 18-26, the Hartke Theatre will stage Ken Ludwig’s Shakespeare in Hollywood. Winner of the 2004 Helen Hayes Award for Best New Play.  This derivative work lands Oberon and Puck on a 1934 Hollywood movie set. Jay Brock directs what should be a nice complement to the Shakespeare Theater Company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Rounding out the season, from April 30 to June 9, the Folger will stage Twelfth Night – which I thinks is his funniest – under the direction of Robert Richmond.

From May 9 to June 23, the Shakespeare Theater Company will stage The Winter’s Tale, one of the Bard’s “problem plays” according to some,under the direction of Rebecca Bayla Taichman.

Washington, D.C.’s incredibly rich Shakespeare scene is one reason why living here is so much fun.