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.

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.

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!

Shakespeare Matters: The Hamlet “Bad” Quarto

Thomas Keene played Hamlet in the United States during the 1880’s. This poster depicts the major scenes of the play, all of which are included in the “bad” quarto though it’s little more than half the length of later versions.

It’s been called a “rough draft” with “shortcomings,” “fragmentary and unreliable.” It’s the “bad” quarto of Hamlet, the first printed text of the play. Published in 1603, it’s just over half the length of the first “good” version that appeared in 1604.

No one knows with much certainty when Hamlet was written, with some believing it could have been as early as 1589.

The “bad” quarto famously mangles Hamlet’s soliloquies, such as: “To be, or not to be, that is the point.” It has other oddities which include giving no name to Hamlet’s uncle other than “King of Denmark,” the man who murders Hamlet’s father, marries his mother (Queen Gertrude), and becomes the new King. He’s called Claudius in the 1604 version.

In the “bad” quarto, the new King repeatedly addresses his nephew Hamlet as his son. Perhaps that’s not unusual since the new King is Hamlet’s stepfather. Yet in the “good” versions of Hamlet, the new King (Claudius) refers to Hamlet as his son much less often, and more often refers to him as Queen Gertude’s son (“your son”).

In an absorbing study of Hamlet, Marc Shell, a Professor of English at Harvard University, shows how Hamlet’s paternity is ambiguous, and that the new King could well be his biological father. With its numerous references to Hamlet as the reigning monarch’s son, the “bad” quarto perhaps intended to get that point across. We’ll likely never know why the later versions change or delete many of those references.

The Taffety Punk Theatre Company played up the strangeness of what it calls the “bad ass quarto” in a recent performance at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

The company’s “bootleg” production — for which the actors rehearsed together for the first time on the day of their one and only performance — had the crazy Prince of Denmark (played by the boyish and highly likeable Marcus Kyd) streak across the stage bad-ass naked in front of a packed audience. It was Shakespeare delightfully in the raw (full disclosure: I’m a Taffety Punk supporter).

Directed by Joel David Santner, the Taffety Punk show featured additional strong performances by Eric Hissom (King of Denmark), James Beaman (Ghost of Hamlet’s father), Todd Scofield (Corambis), Kimberly Gilbert (Ofelia), Shawn Fagan (Laertes), Esther Williamson (Horatio), Joe Brack (Rossencraft) and Tonya Beckman as (“Gilderstone”).

Yes, those are how the characters’ names are spelled in the “bad” quarto.

So just how bad is the “bad” quarto of Hamlet? From the viewpoint of the most powerful man in Queen Elizabeth’s court for most of her 45-year reign, the answer would be, very bad.

Many view the character named “Corambis,” the new King’s right hand man in the “bad” quarto, as a parody of Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who served as the Crown’s Secretary and Treasurer under Queen Elizabeth I. The numerous links between Corambis and Burghley include the character’s recitation of precepts to his son, Laertes, which sound very similar to those Burghley had published.

Later versions of Hamlet change the character’s name from Corambis to Polonius. In 1869, George Russel French was the first to propose that Burghley was Polonius.

Burghley’s motto was “Cor unum, via una,” Latin for “one heart, one way.” By simply substituting “ambis” for “unum,” the first part of the motto becomes “Corambis,” giving it the pejorative meaning of “double-hearted” (“bis” in Latin means “twice”). Burghley created the Queen Elizabeth’s spy service. In the turning point of the play, Corambis, who’s been spying on Hamlet and his mother, is murdered by the prince.

Corambis comes off as a vicious parody of Burghley, a long-winded, meddling, sanctimonious fool. Little wonder that subsequent versions of Hamlet changed the character’s name to Polonius.

If Corambis/Polonius was meant to represent the powerful Lord Burghley, it’s hard to believe that he (or his nearly equally powerful son, Robert Cecil, or both) wouldn’t have demanded the name change if not banned the play altogether.

To Burghley, a performance of what’s now called the “bad” quarto of Hamlet would have been bad news indeed.