Taffety Punk Theatre Company, one of the most innovative small troupes in Washington, DC, has taken on William Shakespeare again with its concert reading of the narrative poem, The Rape of Lucrece. Originally penned in 1594, this evocative image-filled and historically-inspired poem chronicles powerful Tarquin’s rape of the beautiful Lucrece, a woman he views as an object to be conquered. The story has a bitter end for Lucrece as she commits suicide. Taffety puts an unexpected twist on this ancient tale and sets it in a more contemporary era. The narration is supported by rock music, other sound elements, and interpretive dance.
Under the direction of Marcus Kyd (who plays guitar and provides additional vocals), the cast works hard to make the presentation style work and all players remain uniformly engaged throughout the unrelenting hour of performance. Tonya Beckman (Narrator) has the slightly daunting task of being the glue that holds the piece together. Her delivery of the well-known poem is intense, varied, and dynamic. Beckman’s strong presence is one major reason to see this production. To say that she’s committed would be an understatement.
Kimberly Gilbert rocks out with her bass guitar and brings emotion to the role of Lucrece although she is more successful in her small acting/dance moments with Joel David Santner (Tarquin) than when singing. With facial expressions, she conveys Lucrece’s despair in a compelling way. Santner is also effectively creepy and intense as Tarquin.
Dan Crane provides essential music support on the drums, which adds to the rock concert atmosphere. Although the role of Lucrece’s husband, Collantine, is a small component of the poem, he makes the most of his time in the spotlight and conveys the gravity of the situation. Katie Murphy, who opens the show as Lucrece’s shadow, is effective in conveying Lucrece’s pain and eventual demise with interpretive dance. Collectively, with Gilbert, the duo makes clear Lucrece’s pain with a shadow dance number towards the end of the show. This moment is among the most effective in the show from a staging perspective.
Director Marcus Kyd is on to something with this raw presentation style as it combines the best of a poetry slam with elements of a rock concert and dance performance. This allows new light to be shed on the classic tale and it’s quite possible that all of the diverse elements will coalesce more with time. The choreographic elements (Erin Mitchell) add value to the presentation without overshadowing the words. Dance is used to convey the characters’ inner-feelings and experience, but it never feels forced or out of place.
Ellen Houseknecht’s lighting is minimal, but contributes well to the concert-like staging. The sound elements, however, require some additional refinement. As it stands, Beckman and Kyd each have sound duties in one way or another as they are performing their respective roles. Because this show is so sound-heavy, it might make sense to use an additional person to ensure that the sound remains clear and consistent, and that vocals are always heard over the instruments in the small venue without requiring the actors, particularly Beckman, to scream for over an hour. That said, sometimes the multi-tasking leads to a good result. Beckman is a master at using a foot petal to deliver some unexpected vocal effects while assuming the role of the narrator.
Despite these quibbles, the end result of this concert reading experiment is quite a good one thanks to the talents of the small and ambitious ensemble. It’s definitely one to check out in Washington’s packed fall theatre season. Taffety productions are almost never boring and this show is just one more example of how the company thinks outside of the box.
Running Time: 65 minutes with no intermission.