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Othello doing karaoke. Troubadours singing “Dust in the Wind” as a eulogy. Hamlet descending in a hot air balloon. If this doesn’t sound like your usual Shakespeare, then, well, it wasn’t meant to be. Taffety Punk is what happens when a classically trained theater company meets punk rock, and its “Bootleg Shakespeare” productions fall in line with that ethos. Taffety’s one-night performance of William Shakespeare and John Fletcher‘s The Two Noble Kinsmen takes place tonight at 7 p.m. at the Folger Shakespeare Library. The performance is free.
Marcus Kyd, one of the troupe’s founders, dates Taffety’s beginning to “when theater was getting a little stale to me.” After studying theater in school, Kyd played guitar with the post-hardcore band the Most Secret Method, and found himself wanting to bring some of that energy to theater while also incorporating dance.
“Pretty much everytime somebody comes out of school, they’re ready to overthrow kind of the accepted mode of theater. As Marcus says, you learn mass work, you learn kinetic improv. You never use it in the real world,” says Lise Bruneau, the director of Two Noble Kinsmen and Kyd’s wife. “By the time I met Marcus, I had heard so many stories at the bar of people who were absolutely going to start a company that never did, or got it together for just one show, so I didn’t trust him. I was like, ‘Oh you, too! Everybody wants to start their own theater company, blah, blah, blah.’”
Even though she had doubts, Bruneau joined Kyd in 2004, along with company members Chris Marino, David Polk, and Kimberly Gilbert. In addition to the bootleg productions of Shakespeare, the troupe specializes in its own, particular brand of countercultural theater.
“The theater culture we live in nowadays is almost, for the everyman, pretty inaccessible. Ticket prices are so expensive, and it’s just not in the popular realm of usual entertainment we have like T.V,” says Gilbert, who will play the Jailer’s Daughter in Two Noble Kinsmen. “And I think that what we want to do with Taffety Punk is that we want to be accessible to everybody and show them that theater is not pretentious. You can understand people when they’re on stage, and you can be moved by live theater. We want to bring back the notion of theater that is reactionary, and in your face, and extremely approachable and extremely affordable.”
That was the case this winter, when Taffety staged the hour-long, dance-heavy work suicide.chat.room at the Mead Theatre Lab. It drew its dialogue from online chatrooms for the suicidal. “We put some material through crazy filters,” says Kyd. “suicide.chat.room was a dance play. This is now the truth that we’re building, that’s what exciting to me. So it doesn’t always have to be people talking around furniture.”
The bootleg plays—-which are rehearsed, staged, and performed in one night—-are a Taffety Punk favorite because of their challenge. “If you want to feel what a theater rock show is, this is it, ” says Kyd. “Bootleg Shakespeare is like turning all the knobs up to 10and blasting it through the speakers. Actors never listen to each other as intently as they do in a bootleg, because you might have just met your scene partner when he walked on stage. And the audience knows that it’s a train that could wreck at any moment, and they’re on the edge of the seat waiting.”
Taffety Punk’s previous bootleg performances have produced some mishaps. There was a production of Cymbeline that required a dead body to be dragged on stage. Halfway through the performance, company members realized that no one had remembered to make the body.
“So they literally took clothes off of different men that were standing around and found more clothes and stuffed anything they could find inside a shirt and a pair of pants. And last minute, just dragged it on stage,” says Gilbert. The audience erupted in laughter—-then it realized it was chuckling at the dead lover of Gilbert’s character.
Traditionalists might recoil at the idea of a punk rock spin on Shakespeare, but Taffety Punk’s members describe themselves as devoted scholars of the Bard. “You can’t cry through Romeo and Juliet when they’ve just been making fun of each other the whole time,” says Bruneau. “You really have to be invested in order to go through the original. But, we’ve found, that you can still have those great ideas and if you keep sinking into the intensity of the stakes of the play you can get away with all of it.”