Rough magic: It’s as good a term as any for what theater traffics in. And it’s certainly what the crew at Taffety Punk has always been about: a raw, DIY aesthetic that aims to rekindle the anarchic flame that might have fired performances in the rank, sweaty playhouses of William Shakespeare’s day. The troupe’s annual Bootleg Shakespeare concept, which rehearses and stages a show in a single day, may be the purest expression of that mad passion, which makes Taffety Punk’s current production—an early-draft Hamlet that was on the Bootleg menu a few years back, now getting a full production—a kind of second pass through the panic room. Odd, then, that it should feel so overthought.
A bit of background: The “Bad Hamlet” is a 1604 version of the play we know best from the 1623 first folio text. Shakespeare nerds periodically get fascinated with these early variants, which may be drafts, abbreviated touring scripts, or (most likely) unauthorized pirate texts, and they stage them to see what they reveal. A singularly inventive take on this particular Hamlet took home one of the festival prizes at Capital Fringe in 2009.
What’s terrific about Taffety Punk’s reading is what’s strongest about the text from which the players are working: It’s a sleeker tragedy, less flowery, with a hero who’s more decisive, less caught up in his own head. The action comes to fewer screeching time-for-a-soliloquy halts; Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Polonius (though they’re all called by different names here) aren’t as prominent. With the proceedings focused more tightly on the central story of a murdered king and the son tasked with revenging him, a four-hour drama that can feel like a staged reading of the Bible zips by in two hours and 20 minutes. That includes intermission.
Taffety Punk mainstay Marcus Kyd tears through the prince’s part, lines tumbling over themselves on the way past his lips. Jessica Lefkow’s Gertred stalks through the play, an intense presence whose appetites and motivations are clearer in this version of the story. Other actors double and triple as needed, with Esther Williamson handling both Horatio and Ophelia, for instance, and Jim Jorgensen undertaking the First Gravedigger and Ophelia’s father, called Corambis here.
But if the proceedings are generally brisk and urgent, they’re both framed and occasionally interrupted by moments of stylized movement in which the cast assembles to march or sway or swoon through the moodily lit playing area to the spacey accompaniment of a low-energy score by the D.C.-based band Beauty Pill. Atmospheric, to be sure; communicative, not so much—and it’s almost fatally enervating.
The nadir comes when, after a mad scene that itself feels clumsily staged, director Joel David Santner and choreographer Paulina Guerrero bring Ophelia back on for an interpretive dance that lasts roughly a thousand days. Shakespeare was fond of using recaps to drive home the import of a plot point, but he had his limits.
All told, Taffety Punk’s flirtation with the quarto Hamlet is a worthy experiment, if one that loses urgency when it loses its focus on the basics. Stripping down a classic to its chassis might have worked better if the bones had been left good and bare.
545 7th St. SE. $15. (202) 355-9441. taffetypunk.com.