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 Twelfth Night

Cruel joke: Malvolio dresses and acts silly in front of Olivia. Set under the sea, Taffety Punk’s quirky production looks quite different than this, Malvolio appearing as if he were in a Jacques Cousteau film.

Taffety Punk can chalk up another success with its production of Twelfth Night, now playing at the Capitol Hills Arts Workshop in Washington, DC.

Led by Esther Williamson (Viola) and Tonya Beckman (Olivia), the strong cast under the direction of Michelle Stupe spoke their lines flawlessly and without missing a beat in the sold-out show I saw Saturday.

Taffety Punk is arguably the best entertainment value in town. The company’s innovative, polished performances of Shakespeare consistently satisfy, and at $10 for a ticket, it’s a theatre-lover’s dream.

I got a particular kick out of Sir Toby Belch, whom Ian Armstrong played as a guitar-strumming rocker and 24-hour party guy singing many of his lines. His sidekick, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, in an excellent performance by Jared Mercier, was hilarious alongside the witty Maria, superbly played by Jennifer Hopkins.

Kimberly Gilbert delivered an interesting, thoughtful interpretation of Festes, the Fool, and once more demonstrated her fine musical talents. She has a wonderful voice. Dan Crane (Sebastian), Ricardo Frederick Evans (Duke Orsino), and Robert Leembruggen (Antonio) were also very good, making for a solid cast all around.

For me, however, Daniel Flint stole the show as the much abused Malvolio.

The scene in which Malvolio reads the letter Maria has written in Olivia’s hand, tricking him into thinking Olivia is in love with him, was one of the best Shakespeare scenes I’ve watched in recent years. Crane was very convincing as the duped suitor with laugh-out-loud results, his performance reminding me why Twelfth Night is the Bard’s funniest play.

This show is a two-thumbs up. It runs through February 23. I hope you can still get tickets!

Shakespeare Matters: “The Rape of Lucrece”

Many people don’t know it, but William Shakespeare first achieved fame as a poet.

His long narrative poem Venus and Adonis was published in 1593, followed a year later by a second one, The Rape of Lucrece.

Shakespeare dedicated both poems to Henry Wriothesely, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, a young, popular nobleman in the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Southampton is widely viewed as the Fair Youth adored in Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

“What I have done is yours, what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours,” Shakespeare wrote to Southampton in the dedication of Lucrece.

Renowned American stage actress Katherine Cornell (1893-1974) starred in “Lucrece” on Broadway in 1932. Her performance put her on the cover of Time Magazine.

While Venus and Adonis tells an amusing story of seduction, Lucrece presents the grim tale of Lucrece’s rape by Sextus Tarquinius, the lust-driven son of the reigning Roman king, and her subsequent feelings of shame and self-blame that lead to suicide. Her death causes the ouster of the Tarquins from power in Rome, after which the “state government changed from kings to consuls.”

In a 1964 biography of Shakespeare, A.L. Rowse writes of Lucrece, “There is clearly a deepening experience behind this poem, a greater knowledge of the shadowy side of life, the exploration of sin and remorse, the full realization of consequences, as always with [Shakespeare].” David Bevington, in his 1997 introduction to the poem, says that “Shakespeare’s real interest is not in the characters themselves so much as in the social ramifications of their actions.”

Drawing parallels in the poem to the abduction of Helen and the Trojan War, Shakespeare’s Lucrece shows how outrageous behavior that’s unbecoming of nobility makes not only for personal tragedy, but also takes down the royal powers that be.

Charles Beauclerk, author of Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom, extends this idea, arguing that Lucrece represents Queen Elizabeth I, the mythical Virgin Queen who, in truth, was anything but chaste.

“[T]he piercing of the virgin’s veil or exposure of the queen as a whore – symbolized by the rape of Lucrece – could lead to the end of Elizabeth’s reign, even to the end of monarchy itself,” writes Beauclerk.

It’s a startling interpretation, but then again Shakespeare most often wrote about nobility, particularly the English nobility in his numerous history plays. A poem dedicated to a nobleman that attempts to symbolize Queen Elizabeth through the veil of verse seems an undertaking befitting of Shakespeare, an artist who liked to take risks. One shouldn’t forget the trouble his Richard II  stirred when it was publicly performed — with the incendiary scene of the King’s deposition — on the eve of the Essex Rebellion against Queen Elizabeth.

Taffety Punk Theater Company is performing Shakespeare’s Lucrece as a “concert poem” at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop in Washington, D.C. (metro: Eastern Market) through October 6.

I caught the opening show last night and recommend seeing this creative melding of Shakespeare and rock music. You’ll need to act quickly, there’s just five more performances.

Backed by original music performed by Marcus Kyd on guitar (Kyd also directed), Kimberly Gilbert on bass, and Dan Crane on drums, Tonya Beckman is an engaging narrator of Lucrece. Joel David Santner is compelling as the rapist Tarquin, and the physical struggle between him and Lucrece, played by Gilbert, is skillfully handled by the actors as they stay in synch with the part-dialogue, part-narration story-telling.  Katie Murphy dances gracefully as “Lucrece’s shadow” under the choreography of Erin Mitchell.

Gilbert is outstanding as Lucrece. I found her singing quite moving (“In vain I rail at Opportunity/At Time, at Tarquin, and uncheerful Night”). Like the notes of her bass guitar, Gilbert’s words don’t miss a beat.

Taffety Punk is to be applauded for their bold yet faithful adaptation of Lucrece and infusing Shakespeare with new energy. I hope the company continues on their unique path.

William Shakespeare, rock thee on!