BWW Reviews: Taffety Punk's BLOODY POETRY

BWW Reviews: Taffety Punk's BLOODY POETRY

There seems to be a vogue for literary Bad Boys lately; Fort Fringe is currently hosting WSC Avant Bard's world premiere of Nero/Pseudo, about the Roman Emperor who was more poet than politician-and who all the vices we normally associate with artistic genius, and then some. Now Taffety Punk Theatre has revived Howard Brenton's Bloody Poetry, a portrait of two of the most brilliant and notorious poets of all time.

It's enough to make any mother shriek with panic when her son switches his major to English ...

Seriously though, it is the stuff of great drama when people with incredible charm and talent behave like monsters: idealists with a clear vision of the future, leaving human wreckage in their wake-dead ladies, dead babies, etc.-and sponging off the old man while proclaiming to anyone who will listen that they're misunderstood. Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, geniuses of English literature, so scandalized British society with their sexual immorality and radical ideas that they were forced to flee England. It is their restless wanderings in Europe, and their unsettled ways, that inspired Brenton's meditation on art, morality, and human frailty.

For fans of English literature who are fascinated by Shelley, Byron and the women who devoted themselves to their careers, Bloody Poetry should be a pure delight. Staged in the tiny, black-box space of the Capitol Hills Art Workshop, you can expect an intimate evening with your heroes and heroines. Lise Bruneau has assembled a cast that breathes vivid life into these legendary figures, led by Ian Armstrong as the mercurial, diabolical Lord Byron. Brash, loud, contradictory, and with appetites as voracious as they are destructive, Armstrong's Byron grips the stage with ferocity.

In contrast with Byron's rank libertinism we have Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose infidelities and neglect of his family is somewhat tempered by his idealism. Brenton shows us how messy Shelley's private life became, and how sharply his vision of an ideal society contrasted with reality. Dan Crane gives us a rock-solid performance as Shelley, who (unlike Byron) appears to have a conscience. It was Shelley who was among the first great advocates for nonviolent political resistance, complete personal liberty, not to mention a vegetarian diet. Shelley's political tracts were at least as influential as his poetry, and his admirers included great figures Mahatma Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau (who features in Charm, which Taffety Punk is staging in repertory with Bloody Poetry).

What is refreshing about Bloody Poetry is that the women are given their voices-beginning with Shelley's lover-cum-wife Mary Godwin (later Mary Shelley). Esther Williamson gives us a sensitive performance of Mary as a woman with ideas of her own. Mary was the author, after all, of Frankenstein, the great novel whose genesis is hinted at here, and we see Mary as a proto-feminist who insists on having her way. Williamson adds a special touch by playing snatches of period composers-Beethoven's sonatas especially-that set the scene.

On the evening I attended there were two changes to the cast: Amanda Forstrom played Mary's half-sister Claire Clairemont, who vainly tries to be reunited with Byron (a former lover, and the father of her child). Forstrom makes the most of perhaps the most passive role in the play. The other switch had Teresa Spencer in the role of Harriet Westbrook, Shelley's ex-wife, who (in Brenton's telling) comes to a truly Gothic end and drowns herself in the Serpentine lake in London's Hyde Park. (this isn't exactly how she ended up, but hey-dramatic liberties ...). Spencer's forceful presence reminds us that there were was a truly dark side to Shelley's belief in free love, and she literally haunts the action through much of Act 2.

Rounding out the cast is James Flanagan as Dr. William Polidori, who served as Byron's personal physician but who was also a writer himself. (Fans of the Twilight series will be interested to know that it was very likely Polidori who created the first Vampire tale). Flanagan's take on Polidori is sympathetic at first, as he is made the butt of Byron's abuse; but Flanagan also manages the transition to a bitter gossip-monger and moralist, spitting out his contempt for the lifestyle of the man and his company. He is a reminder that all artists, especially those of questionable morals, attract vicious rumor and constant surveillance from fans and detractors alike.

Lise Bruneau has created an alley-stage setting for "Bloody Poetry," which gives her actors broad scope to travel and muse; but as a result there are some awkward sightlines which make it impossible to see some crucial moments of the action. As set designer Jessica Moretti has made a virtue of the space's limitations, and gauzy curtains at one end of the stage serve a number of functions quite nicely. Brittany Diliberto's lights create a number of effective motifs, while Palmer Hefferan's sound design is generally effective.

Bloody Poetry may not be everyone's cup of tea; those who are not up on their English lit, and who know little of the poets and philosophical debates of the early 19th century, will have some rough going. But for the curious and the adventurous, it makes for a fascinating and passionate literary evening.

Photo, from Left to Right: Tonya Beckman, Ian Armstrong, Esther Williamson (Dan Crane in foreground). Photo by Teresa Castracane

Parking Advisory: As many of you may already know, the neighborhood around 8th St. SE has seen a renaissance of late, which means that parking is at a premium. Not only are most of the spots around the Capitol Hills Workshop reserved for residents, on nights when the Nationals have a ballgame nearby it is literally impossible to find legal parking anywhere near the theater. My advice: treat yourself to a lovely evening out, come early to sample some of the fine cuisine the neighborhood has to offer, and then enjoy the show.

Bloody Poetry plays May 8-31 at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th St SE, Washington, D.C.

For Tickets, call 202-355-9441 or visit:

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From This Author Andrew White

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