Shakespeare, Rock’d


The Washington, DC area loves Shakespeare.  I’m not sure I can say why, exactly – perhaps he’s the most bi-partisan playwright – but the facts are indisputable.  Year after year, the Shakespeare Theatre Company, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, the Folger Theatre, and the Washington Shakespeare Company, among others, put the Big Bad Bard front and center, and a fat handful of other companies take a whack at him for a play or two, too.  His work is so prominent you’d think his face was on the one dollar bill. (Maybe even a little too prominent, but that’s a subject for another #2amt post.)

Most of what the nation’s capitol sees are fairly safe (if often very high-quality) interpretations, but we do have our share of out-there, experimental productions, too.  In recent seasons, for example, we’ve had an extra-gorey Titus, a radio play version of Merchant, a movement-based adaptation of Midsummer, and two different versions of Macbeth: one with an all-naked cast and one with illusions designed by none other than the great Teller himself.  You can definitely get your iambic pentameter served up any way you like it.

For my money, however, nobody quite lights the folios on fire like the Taffety Punk Theatre Company.  (Full disclosure: I’m a member of the board, as well as a playwright whose work the company has produced several times; they also commissioned me to write a new prologue to Cardenio Found, a little-known possibly-written-by-Shakespeare relic.)  They’re doing things no other Shakes-centric company in the area seems to be doing; the past two seasons, for example, they’ve staged all-female productions of Romeo and Juliet and Measure for Measure strong enough to make you forget the performers’ genders three minutes in.

None of the company’s work is quite as audacious, however, as its annual one-night-only Bootleg Shakespeare production.  Here’s the drill: actors are cast, they learn all their lines on their own, and they gather the day of the show to rehearse for a whopping six hours or so before the show goes up.   The show’s director stays on book during the performance – the actors call for lines maybe a dozen or so times at most – and blocking is… well, let’s call it organic.  The company makes use of whatever set is already on the Folger Theatre’s stage, improvises costumes and props at the last minute, and relies on the simplest light and sound cues imaginable.  It’s nothing short of acrobatic.

Most impressive, however, is the fact that it all comes together brilliantly, which is largely a testament to the skill of the thirty or more performers with the talent and daring to pull it off.  Every year the event (which is ticketed, but free) earns the company riotous standing ovations, high critical praise, and standing-room-only houses.   (Last year, 30 or so people had to be turned away at the door.)  It just plain WORKS for everyone involved.

But why?

At least part of the event’s tremendous appeal is the derring-do of the whole thing, to be sure.  Everyone likes to watch high-flying maneuvers performed without (much of) a net.  But the Bootleg is a great deal more than a gimmick: it’s damn fine work, and it’s radically different than the typical Shakespearian rag we see in DC.  Its rawness is what sets it apart; the shows are distinguished by their lack of polish.  Most of the city’s shows are thoroughly rehearsed, carefully costumed, brilliantly lit jewels – or, if they aren’t, they’re at least trying to be.  The Taffety Punks, by contrast, are made of rougher stuff: coal instead of diamonds.  Yes, diamonds sparkle… but coal ignites.

The secret of the Bootleg’s success is that the company’s ever-growing audience genuinely prefers a less “perfectly” constructed theatrical experience.  The flaws in the shows – if you want to call them that – really are quite minor (an incident with a missing dead body in Cymbeline notwithstanding), but they’re enough to make Shakespeare’s epic scale more human, more accessible.  Taffety Punk shows aren’t meant to sit on a shelf like museum pieces – they’re to be handled, used, tossed around, chewed on, and lived with.

Frankly, I think we could all use a lot more theater like that: productions that focus less on achieving the perfect illusory qualities – the right scenic design or sound design, the perfect beat between two uttered lines – and more on the urgency and importance of the story being told.  I honestly don’t believe that the audiences we aren’t reaching (but would like to) give a damn about the nuances we care about – the Taffety Punk audiences are among the youngest and most non-traditional in the city, I hasten to note – and we’d probably do our work a lot more light-heartedly if we stopped sweating the small stuff.  Besides: the play IS the thing after all, isn’t it?  (And by “play” I mean the script, of course, not the production.)

So what if we stopped worrying about buying the best material for our costumes, scrounging the budget for an extra week of rehearsal time, or pouring money into some visual effect only a few audience members are likely to even notice?  What if we stopped focusing on what we don’t have, or absolutely need to have, and started putting our energy into just making it happen, earnestly and with complete dedication, no matter what resources we have?

I think we’d all be Taffety Punks.  That’s what I think.  And that’s a very fine thing to be.

  • July 27, 2010
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