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Don’t let its edgy name fool you. Taffety Punk, the troupe of actors, musicians, and dancers behind scrappy projects like “Bootleg Shakespeare,” are unquestionably loyal to Shakespeare‘s work. But that doesn’t mean they can’t also set it to a blistering soundtrack.
This evening at Sidney Harman Hall, the company performs its take on one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known works, The Rape of Lucrece. As one might surmise from the poem’s title, it’s not a happy tale—-the work is based on the brutal assault of Lucretia circa 508 B.C., committed by the son of the king of Rome. But through singing, dancing, acting, and a lot of loud music, Taffety’s rendition will likely be a powerhouse.
City Paper chatted with with Lucrece‘s core ensemble—-Tonya Beckman (Narrator), Marcus Kyd (Tarquin), and Kimberly Gilbert (Lucrece)—-about breaking down the Bard, and how the tragedy still resonates today.
Washington City Paper: How did Taffety Punk get started?
Marcus Kyd: We were classically trained actors and more than half of us were musicians who had been involved in the punk scene, and we just wanted to get everything we loved into the same room and kind of address some of the issues that we thought were breaking theater down in America. One was that theater is too expensive and the other is that, in my experience, it’s often not fun.
WCP: Not fun to do?
MK: Not fun to see. And when we got jobs, we weren’t often asked to do everything that we were trained to do. All of us have intense training. Most of us in the company have Master’s degrees. And I love acting, but there’s so much more that is possible, so we wanted to make a space for that.
WCP: How did you come across this material? And how did you decide to do it in this format?
Kimberly Gilbert: We all love diving into a piece of Shakespeare that none of us have done before. Especially with this, it stretches all of us to do things that we don’t usually do. I don’t [usually] play electric bass. I said, “Sure, I’ll try it,” and we did it.
MK: But she’s awesome at it. We’re totally starting a band after this is over.
KG: I’m rockin’ two strings like nobody’s business! It’s a wonderful, challenging experience to do things that artistically you’re not used to doing.
Tonya Beckman: Even when I first opened (the poem) up and looked at it, I was like, “Oh it’s like a totally different rhyme scheme than Shakespeare usually uses.” Even that was exciting. It’s a piece that actors don’t get to touch very often.
WCP: What do you like most about the piece?
MK: What we love about the piece is how sadly relevant it still is. It’s an incredibly powerful story about not just the rape of this woman, but the aftermath. And it sickens me that it’s still a problem in the world, but it’s a great vehicle to examine that.
KG: There are segments in this poem where Tarquin, who is the rapist, he might as well have been saying, “She shouldn’t have been wearing that short skirt.” And there are moments where Lucrece is saying, “My husband will never see me again as the same woman. I’m not the same woman, so we can’t be together.” That guilt, that self-loathing that can happen to someone who has been severely assaulted and damaged. And I mean, we still feel those things. And there are still monsters out there.
WCP: You say you cut it down a lot. Did you do that collaboratively? How did you decide what to let go?
KG: We cut everything down because we knew that we had to have it under a certain amount of time. It was too long. And so we really just we wanted to make sure that the architecture of the storyline was very clear, and each moment is linked to each moment.
TB: There are portions of it where it’s so descriptive. There’s a part where it’s, like, eight stanzas describing (Tarquin) walking down a hallway at one point. Cutting things for time, it’s, “But that’s so beautiful, I don’t want to lose that.” But if it’s not propelling the plot, it has to go.
MK: This has always been an ongoing experiment. We’ve been messing with the poem for about four or five years now. And some of the time, it was just us reading it with a bunch of effects pedals and just jumping on the effects to hear the words bounce around the room in different ways.
KG: This is a good instance of, “Well, what if we don’t have the lights? And what if everyone’s not available? Can we do something that’s more edited down?”
MK: It’s like one side of a mixtape—-because I’m from the era where people made each other mixtapes. We didn’t want an intermission, we didn’t want people to take a break and come back. We got it down to about an hour.
WCP: You did a version of this show last fall at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. If people saw that show, why they would want to come to this one? What new elements have you added?
TB: It’s going to be much simpler, because we won’t have our lights and it’ll be a bit shorter. Low-tech. And I think that what will be interesting to see is if it still hangs together, if you take some of those things you don’t necessarily need away.
MK: This is the most extreme cutting we’ve done. We rehearsed it a couple days ago and were all surprised by how good it felt. Any time we start talking about cuts, you can’t cut just a line. This is what we discovered. Because it’s rhyme royal, seven line stanzas, a very specific rhyme scheme. So if you take one of those out, the poem just comes to a screeching halt. So it’s the whole stanza out, or you keep it. I’m excited to see if this is the lean, total narrative, the meanest cut we can come up with. I don’t think we can cut more. I think it would fall apart.
WCP: You mentioned that that the subject matter—-rape—-is an issue that’s still present in society. In the news you have two really horrific rapes, here and in India, that have been covered in the media a lot. Going into this performance, how aware/affected by these recent stories are you?
TB: Whenever I’m working on anything, I start seeing it everywhere. It was doubly so for this, because it has been in the news. And like Kimberly was saying before, it’s like the same argument over and over again. You look at this poem and it’s the same exact problem.
KG: There’s a timelessness to this horrific crime and when you see that the excuses just boil down to the same thing every single time, there’s no—-I mean, the horror of it always remains … there are some people out there that still will try to defend it or piece it apart.
MK: The whole “legitimate rape” fiasco last fall, I mean, it was horrifying to hear anybody in this era actually think that he was thinking logically. It is only a catastrophe, it is only horrible.
TB: One thing that’s interesting about this is, you get to hear Tarquin’s side of it and hopefully go, “That’s awful.”
KG: But he goes into these beautiful stanzas where he’s like, “I can’t do this, what am I doing? This is crazy,” and the next time he’s like, “No, no, it’s OK, because the next time she’s gonna want it.” Like, he’s rationalizing it. I love many things about Shakespeare, but one of the main things I love is that he has in many ways truly an unbiased approach to his characters. He sees both sides of the story. As horrific as the person may be, he makes almost all of them self-reflective. There’s very few “just demons” in his plays. There’s always a conflict. But in conflict, there’s always a choice, and the person who’s a hero is the one who goes down the right path, and the one who is damned is the tragedy.
MK: And he’s more of a monster because, in the writing, he knows he’s doing something he shouldn’t do. And all of that comes up and he chooses otherwise. He chooses to do it anyway.
WCP: How does the music come in and help move the story?
TB: Music has a way of evoking mood in a way that words don’t. That sort of really does propel the story that’s harder to do if it’s just the text.
KG: The music was really that was the most organic endeavor. We all wrote it together. The choreography was the lovely Erin Mitchell, who’s beautiful and wonderful.
MK: In terms of juxtaposing accidents, that’s another thing. We got to a point after Lucrece is looking at the tapestry of the painting of the Trojan thing. I was at the end of my rope. We were so far into the poem and I have no idea what we’re going to do now. And Kimberly went, “Oh this is the part that Erin choreographed,” and I was [like], “Oh great!” So throwing stuff, seeing what sticks.
WCP: How much was this influenced by the ancient Greek or Elizabethan style? How much was modernized?
TB: I would say it’s not in any way influenced by the Greek. Except the story. It’s very modern, it’s loud.
MK: Yeah, we should pass out earplugs.
KG: We try to keep a good anchor to the contemporary world. We really try to make sure that we get all of our “Shakespeare accents” out of the room. That we really truly honor the language as being English. And accessible. We did Much Ado About Nothing a year and a half ago, and had a Q-and-A with these high school students and one of them asked, “So was it hard to change the text to make it regular English?” And when we told them that we didn’t change anything, they were blown away because, well, “But I understood everything, how could I understand everything?” Because it’s English!
TB: When we’re doing our job, it is clear. Despite how old these words are.
MK: I can see from the outside, with our company, you might come to see one of our plays and think, “Man, they are stretching the rubber band pretty tight here, you know?” But we go after the story. Something like Rape of Lucrece, we’re using these elements to amplify what’s already there, to define what’s already there.
KG: We take these chances on theme or style but we never compromise story for style and we’ll never compromise being interesting for the story.
MK: It’s not a gimmick.
WCP: Why is this one of Shakespeare’s more obscure pieces?
TB: It’s an off-putting piece, mostly because of its length. And because it has a very structured rhyme scheme to it and the text is pretty unforgiving. And if you were just to like assign parts and have people act out certain stanzas, it would be boring.
MK: There’s one section that’s clearly dialogue that to me seems like he might have been working on a play and then when the plagues hit, decided to make it a poem. And we act that scene out. But a lot of it is internal and the narrator’s function is great because she gets to put you in the mind of what’s going on with them.
WCP: What’s your next great challenge?
TB: We’ve got a lot of crazy stuff on the burner. The Ophelia piece.
MK: We’re adapting just Ophelia’s piece from Hamlet. How a sane person gets to where she is.
KG: Kind of along the lines of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in the idea of seeing it from the perspective of these side characters. It’s a spotlight on showing how influential [Ophelia] became in the propulsion of the story. She’s not just a flowery chick who falls into a river whose corpse gets tossed about by two other men.
Taffety Punk will perform Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece, a concert poem, at 5:30 p.m. tonight in the Forum at the Harman Center, 610 F St. NW. Free.