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A guitar-strumming narrator in jeans and a white T-shirt sings a modern prologue to Taffety Punk Theatre Company’s production of Cardenio Found, an adaptation of a long-lost and much adulterated script attributed to William Shakespeare and based on a character pilfered from Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. The prologue is a necessary departure: The play’s provenance is confusing.
Around 1613, the King’s Men performed Cardenio, a play written by Shakespeare and collaborator John Fletcher. The story riffed off the tale of a hapless character from Don Quixote, which had just been translated into English. Not long after the performance, the play was lost. More than a century later, in 1727, author Lewis Theobald announced he had found copies of the missing script. He modified the play and put it up for production; he then lost the original script he claimed to have discovered. Now, nearly 400 years later, many Shakespeare scholars still have faith that Theobald’s script was indeed based upon the Bard’s original work.
“The play we see is an adaptation of an adaptation of an adaptation,” says director Christopher Marino. “It seems that the nature of this piece might be that it will be an ongoing adaptation.”
Taffety Punk, a young troupe with roots in D.C.’s music scene, has drawn name recognition for productions such as The Skinhead Hamlet, in which players stormed on and off the Warehouse Next Door stage, screaming at one another to fuck off. This production, part of the District’s six-month-long Shakespeare Festival, is only a little less crass.
As in the original, a rape provides the flint of controversy for the comedy. The victim runs away, as does her attacker, who tries to find love by stealing the bride-to-be of his best friend. If the actual play weren’t debauched enough, Marino’s adaptation inserts extra raunchiness and innuendo where it didn’t exist before: One of the leading men shoves a high school portrait of his paramour down his pants; two drunken friends cavort around the stage with liquor bottles shooting out from their crotches. But Marino doesn’t think his tinkering gets too far from the play’s intentions.
“Shakespeare himself had something of a punk aesthetic,” he says. “He took everything from someone else. Similar in some ways to what punk does, he tears it apart and looks at it from a different point of view.”
Adding to the artistic mishmash is the costume design, which Marino describes as DIY with a Spanish flare: T-shirts and jeans hemmed with red ruffles and stamped with artsy screen prints. And both the scaled-down set design—which includes foam-core sheep on skateboards and ladies standing atop ladders for balcony scenes—and the minimalist guitar-and-bass soundtrack (by local singer-songwriter Kathy Cashel) are reminiscent of Taffety’s previous punk-rock-infused productions. In all aspects, Cardenio Found is Shakespeare reinvented—hardly a novel idea—but, given that the play itself is a hodgepodge of lost, stolen, and recast texts, Marino has no reservations about adding his own touch to it.
“So many hands have been on this play,” he says. “One more adaptation wasn’t going to hurt it.”
Cardenio Found runs at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 19, through Saturday, April 21, and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, April 22, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. $10. (202) 393-3939.