Taffety Punk’s brilliant Two Noble Kinsmen rocks the Folger Theatre

The Taffety Punk Theater Company, which recently produced Richard Byrne’s superb new play Burn Your Bookes, tonight staged one of their annual ?bootleg? performances at the Folger Theatre in Washington DC, in this case Shakespeare and Fletcher’s The Two Noble Kinsmen. The performance was extraordinary, and in some ways revelatory, and was even more impressive than last year’s ?bootleg? Troilus and Cressida. The Two Noble Kinsmen is seldom read and even more rarely performed, and is the only play considered an authentic work of Shakespeare not to have been in any way produced for film, television, video or DVD. There are several reasons for this, not least of which that the play appears to be much more Fletcher than Shakespeare, who apparently was more or less retired by the time of the collaboration on this very late work. The play is basically bookended by Shakespeare’s writing, but the bulk of it seems to belong to Fletcher. No doubt Act 1, scenes 1 and 2 (and probably 3) are indeed the work of Shakespeare, as are scenes 3 and 4 in Act V, plus some other elements scattered around the play. But it wasn’t included in the first Folio, probably because Hemmings and Condell didn’t want to include plays which Shakespeare was involved in drafting but in which someone else had the larger part (they didn’t include Pericles either, probably for similar reasons). And, of course, this means that The Two Noble Kinsmen doesn’t compare very well in the final analysis with most of Shakespeare’s other work.

But, and here’s the really interesting element of this evenings’ performance, it’s this very quality that made it perfect play for a bootleg production. I should, no doubt, have already explained what Taffety Punk means by ?bootleg.? Essentially the actors are recruited and cast quickly and individually about a month before the performance and spend their own time studying their parts from paper whenever they want to. The cast and company meet for the first time the morning of the performance and do one rehearsal only, maybe throw some costumes and props together, and perform the entire thing in the evening, again only once. It produces very interesting effects, as were seen last year in their fascinating bootleg Troilus and Cressida. However, even in that creditable effort the real limitations of the ?bootleg? production process were pretty evident. It was great fun, and revealed some interesting things about the play, but in the end Troilus and Cressida is a very complicated Shakespeare play, one of his darkest, essentially an extremely grim parody of some of his earlier tragedies, especially Romeo and Juliet. The Two Noble Kinsmen is a much more straightforward proposition than most of Shakespeare’s other work and it sparkled this evening. I’m not sure a month of rehearsals would have wrung out very much more entertainment, excitement or, more importantly, signification than Taffety Punk was able to achieve with one morning’s rehearsal.

It’s true the actors had to resort to prompting much more frequently than in a regularly rehearsed performance, but it did almost nothing to break the spell. It’s true enough that the lighting and the sound were largely improvised, but again the effect would probably not have been particularly more powerful if they had been more polished. The extremely rudimentary costumes, such as they were, and props (ditto) certainly demanded a more than usual suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience, but in that sense it was probably a lot closer to the experience of Shakespeare’s audiences, especially his early audiences at The Theater, The Rose and The Globe (probably less so at Blackfriars). And while the Folger Theatre is probably a lot more like Blackfriars than the earlier, larger and more downscale South Bank open-air theaters, it was still a very good fit for the spartan production values of the bootleg performance (think, for example, of Shakespeare’s appeal to his audience’s imagination in the Chorus opening to Henry V — we’re going to have to suspend our disbelief anyway and a willing audience engaged by a spirited cast will disregard a great deal, especially when the language of the play can carry the day more effectively than props, costumes and special effects). Certainly it all goes to show that spirit, enthusiasm and a sense of playful adventure is a lot more important than the fancy nonsense that has tended to mar many of the recent productions by the smug and pompous Shakespeare Theater Company of DC.

What I think this evening’s triumph at the Folger shows more than anything is not just that the bootleg production process can reveal interesting things about Shakespeare’s plays, but that non-Shakespeare English Renaissance drama is even better suited to this method and is an exceptionally good fit for it. I think in fairness to do real justice to most of Shakespeare’s work requires more than a bootleg performance can possibly produce, especially in terms of getting the language right, effectively navigating its meaning in delivery and coping with both the rigors and the ever-instructive guidelines of the pentameter itself (very rarely done with precision even at the highest theatrical levels). Throughout his career, but especially in his later plays, Shakespeare wrote in a highly idiosyncratic and extremely complicated, elliptical, dense and often convoluted manner that produces dizzying proliferations of signification, and plainly even the finest actors can be challenged by a good deal of it. It’s sometimes almost impossible to parse what clauses and qualifiers in a given passage specifically refer to each other, it being possible to apply multiple readings. That’s great for reader, but poses serious challenges to actors and directors, presenting a series of detailed choices are both complicated and important. Moreover, Shakespeare wasn’t the only English Renaissance playwright to work at the level of masterpiece by any means. Most of Marlowe, a lot of Jonson and at least some of Middleton would require similar scrupulous attention to detail to be fully realized on stage.

But even the second-tier of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama was composed during what was clearly by far the greatest explosion of literary invention and talent in the history of the English language, and calls for and rewards serious attention. What the bootleg performance of The Two Noble Kinsmen, which as I say is much more the work of Fletcher than Shakespeare, suggests is that there is a good deal of excellent, if not transcendent, Renaissance drama that is too frequently passed over for performance and could be perfectly suited to this kind of production (it really shouldn’t be necessary to have the name Shakespeare attached to a play in order to get people to come see it). Certainly plays by Kyd, Chapman, Dekker, Ford, Marston, Massinger, Beaumont and/or Fletcher (without Shakespeare), some of Middleton’s less challenging work, and much more would probably respond very well to this kind of treatment. Early interesting and significant, but not artistically sophisticated, plays like Gorboduc and Ralph Roister Doister probably don’t deserve anything much more extensive than a bootleg under any circumstances, but it would certainly be a fun and rewarding project. I think it would be fascinating for both actors and audiences to engage bootleg productions of neglected but artistically significant plays like The Spanish Tragedy, The Revenger’s Tragedy, Philaster, or my number one suggestion for this performance method, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, especially since there aren’t likely to be any full-scale productions of any of them anytime in the foreseeable future.

Taffety Punk took some serious liberties with the production and even some aspects of the language of The Two Noble Kinsmen, especially the introduction of large amounts of playful contemporary popular culture, and of course they were right to do so. The whole thing about the bootleg production process is it has to be loose, lighthearted and fun. It can work for dark plays and tragedies, but it’s especially effective, think, with comedies and tragicomedies that are essentially sendups of established genres. Amid a truly excellent cast that deserved the sustained standing ovation they received, Kimberly Gilbert stole the show as the Jailer’s Daughter. The role, which often comes across as a parody of Ophelia and other tragic heroines of earlier Renaissance dramas, is perfectly suited to her exuberant style and really calls for the kind of over-the-top, leaping-about-the-stage, wild approach she gave it. She was very good as Edward Kelley’s daughter Westonia, herself a noted Renaissance poet, in Byrne’s Burn Your Bookes, but was even better tonight. Indeed, the entire cast and the whole production made no effort to be restrained or judicious. This was an enthusiastic, exuberant and fearless embrace of a very good and too often ignored play, and it suggested real possibilities for marrying the bootleg production process with some important, excellent and even more often ignored Elizabethan and Jacobean English drama. I hope Marcus Kyd and his Taffety Punk colleagues seriously consider one of the many important and generally ignored Renaissance but non-Shakespeare works for next year’s bootleg production. Tonight’s largely Fletcher play, with some Shakespeare present but not dominant, was a great example of how well that could work.