‘Bloody Poetry’ at Taffety Punk Theatre Company at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop

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William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats–the English Romantic Poets, believers in love, nature, passion, instinct, revolution, and glory.

Turns out they are not nearly as romantic as their poetry professes.

Be thou the rainbow in the storms of life!
The evening beam that smiles the clouds away,
And tints tomorrow with prophetic ray!
The Bride of Abydos
Lord Byron

Ian Armstrong, Danny Crane, Esther Williamson, and Tonya Beckman. Photo by Marcus Kyd.
Ian Armstrong, Danny Crane, Esther Williamson, and Tonya Beckman. Photo by Marcus Kyd.

Taffety Punk’s production of Bloody Poetry by Howard Brenton tackles the short life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, focusing on his relationship with Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, and Claire Clairmont–a tangled quartet of lovers, friends, and upper class linguistic experts.

The acting is superb, the direction crisp, the scenography less is more, and the space a wee bit contorted but intimate enough to make the screams piercing and the bombast spitalating.

Bloody Poetry should be seen by all who have a poetic spirit, who understand the difference between high-mindedness and gutter politics, and who think the 1960s were the beginning of decadence and the end of Western supremacy.

Directed by Lise Bruneau, the six-member ensemble of two poets, a novelist, a groupie, a paparazzo, and a spurned wife take their audience on an oddly modern voyage to the early 1800s where the not yet successful Shelley first meets the way-too-successful Byron by way of Claire, the lover/groupie they both have shared, who happens to be the step-sister of the lover Shelley now has, Mary, whom he will soon marry after his then wife, Harriet, drowns herself in the Serpentine in Hyde Park. Meanwhile, Byron’s doctor-boatman, Polidori, grown psychologically ill from his proximity to upper class hypocrisy, has taken to writing diaries and spying on the celebrity poets as a way of earning his own fame and fortune.

Bruneau’s direction uses the intimate space at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop like a chess match, moving Brenton’s wonderful combination of scenes and diatribes, poetic hallucinations, and monologues from one end of the space to the other. Audience members might have to twist and turn to keep up, but when the neck grows weary Brenton’s language pops and sings like a master’s tongue.

Leading the ensemble is Dan Crane’s Shelley. A young idealist who scorns conventional views on marriage, love, and fidelity, his Shelley dreams of a world where women and men can love everyone simultaneously without repercussions. When the real world interferes with those dreams, he agonizes and rants against it before then succumbing painfully to its dictates. Crane’s performance captures wonderfully that young man’s persona trapped between the idealistic vision he sees and the reality that has him by the balls (and lungs with tuberculosis).

The six characters of Bloody Poetry. — with Tonya Beckman, Ian Armstrong, James Flanagan, Esther Williamson, Danny Crane, Taffety Punk and Amanda Forstrom at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.
The six characters of ‘Bloody Poetry’: Tonya Beckman, Ian Armstrong, James Flanagan, Esther Williamson, Danny Crane,  and Amanda Forstrom at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

His poetic counterpart is Lord Byron, played with a fierce joy by Ian Armstrong. If Shelley is mushy revolutionary ideals, Byron is bombastic lordly libertinism, capable of dumping a distressed lover overboard at the first sign of a storm. A syphilitic, bi-sexual pederast who spends his days (and nights) jumping between thighs and butt cheeks, Armstrong’s Byron exudes a passion for life, but only his own arrogantly enriched.

Meanwhile, the trio of women entwined in the lives of these men-of-letters, though living life in a lower register, are just as engaging.

Esther Williamson plays Mary Shelley, the creator of Frankenstein’s monster (and if one looks hard enough one begins to understand just where she got the inspiration for that monster). Of all the characters populating the stage, her Mary beams with the light of reason; ironically, this “enlightenment” makes her not so much a romantic as its fiercest antagonist. Williamson’s portrayal is a joy.

Tonya Beckman plays the 1816 groupie, Claire Clairmont. Beckman throws herself totally into the role, entrancing us at the beginning with her seemingly boundless enthusiasm for the rebellious life. When her circumstances turn desperate, we feel for her predicament even though we saw it coming miles down the road.

Cast of Taffety Punk's 'Rulebreaker Rep': L to R:  James Flanagan, Esther Williamson, Teresa Spencer, Amanda Forstrom, Lise Bruneau, Dan Crane, Tonya Beckman, Ian Armstrong, and Harlan Work. Photo by Marcus Kyd
Cast of Taffety Punk’s ‘Rulebreaker Rep’: L to R: James Flanagan, Esther Williamson, Teresa Spencer, Amanda Forstrom, Lise Bruneau, Dan Crane, Tonya Beckman, Ian Armstrong, and Harlan Work. Photo by Marcus Kyd

Amanda Forstrom plays the oddest character that Brenton gives us, Harriet Westbrook, wife of Shelley and the mother of his children. Her brief second act monologue, which ends in her suicide, is riveting.

And then there is the hired-hand, a boatman and (believe it or not) a medical doctor, Polidori, played with green envy by James Flanagan. Although we can understand his class frustration–having to hire himself out to Lord Byron even though he has a doctor’s training–our sympathy wanes as his pettiness rises. Importantly, Flanagan’s comic timing is crisp, and we can laugh at the darkness of his predicament.

Bloody Poetry’s production team does solid work, particularly when one considers the fact that Bloody plays in rep with Charm, another literarily romantic exploration. Jessica Moretti’s sets double as costumes pieces, augmenting the simple yet appropriate costumes of designer Tessa Lew. Brittany Diliberto’s lights keep the audience following the acting.

Special praise must be given to Composer and Sound Designer Palmer Hefferan. Williamson played his compositions on the piano at various times during the production, adding underscore to poetry and romantic tension to scenes.

In Bloody Poetry Brenton has done his best to leave the moralizing to others, most specifically to upper crust society of the 1800’s. Taffety Punks’ production has done the same. And I will do the same here, for it seems to me that what this fascinating play urges more than anything is the view that we have suffered enough from moralizing and its idealization of people and their behaviors.

Brenton gives us these famous poets, high representatives as they are of Western culture. He gives us their loves, their defiance, their diseases, their warts, their arrogance, their ideals, their supremacism, their hedonism, their tragic lives, and most importantly their words. Those words–and those words alone–gave them their status and their place in the history books.

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Bloody Poetry plays in rep with Charm through May 31, 2014 at Taffety Punk Theatre Company at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop – 545 7th Street, SE in Washington, D.C. For tickets,  purchase them online.

LINK
Justin Schneider reviews Charm on DCMetroTheaterArts.

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Robert Michael Oliver
Poet, Performer, Theatre Artist, Playwright, Educator, Writer--Robert Michael Oliver, Ph.D., has been involved in the DC arts scene since the 1980s, when he co-founded The Sanctuary Theatre in the old sanctuary of Calvary United Methodist Church. Since those fierce days in Columbia Heights, he has earned his doctorate in theatre from University of Maryland, raised two wonderful children, and seen more theatre as a reviewer over the last two years than he saw in the previous thirty. He now co-directs, along with his wife Elizabeth Bruce, the Sanctuary's Performing Knowledge Project, which organizes a host of writing and performance workshops, plus Mementos: Poetry and Performance for Seniors, a yearly literature-in-performance Fringe Festival show, as well as Performetry--a monthly poetry and prose performance event at DC's community arts & culture center BloomBars.