Backstage: 'Burn Your Bookes' at Taffety Punk, Folger's 2010-2011 season

HAVING A BALL: Daniel Flint as alchemist Edward Kelley in "Burn Your Bookes," set in what's now the Czech Republic.
HAVING A BALL: Daniel Flint as alchemist Edward Kelley in "Burn Your Bookes," set in what's now the Czech Republic. (Teresa Castracane)
By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Playwright Richard Byrne doesn't mind admitting he's rather obsessed with a time, a place and real-life characters who are nearly unknown to most American audiences. But they're wildly popular in the Czech Republic.

Byrne's new play, "Burn Your Bookes," running through May 22 at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (545 Seventh St. SE) in a production by Taffety Punk Theatre Company, is about an alchemist of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Edward Kelley (played by Daniel Flint). Kelley worked for John Dee (Will Cooke), a mathematician, scientist and dabbler in alchemy and the occult arts who was a favorite of Elizabeth I's. Dee and Kelley went to Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) for a number of years, trying to win favor with Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia Rudolf II, and that's where the play unfolds.

Kelley was, as Byrne portrays him, more gifted than Dee (whom he manipulates and undermines) as a medium, or "scrier," who could "hear" angels' voices via a crystal ball and interpret their language. He was also, in Byrne's vision, a more convincing alchemist, claiming he could turn base metal into gold. The play ends after Kelley's death, looking at his stepdaughter Elizabeth Jane Weston (Kimberly Gilbert), a gifted poet.

Kelley and Dee are major characters in Czech culture, notes Byrne, 44, who taught English in Prague for a year in the early 1990s after the Velvet Revolution. Under communism, he learned, "that whole alchemical tradition of Prague was one of those things Czech scholars could go to England and talk about and not worry about being too political." Even after communism, adds Byrne, it was "one of those things that all Czechs knew about. Everyone knew the story of Edward Kelley and John Dee." In England, too, "the tall tales around Kelley are immense."

The big question for Byrne is whether Kelley was a sincere practitioner or a con artist. Well, says Byrne, when Kelley looked into the crystal ball (with his boss Dee taking copious notes), "the spirits always seemed to be saying something that Edward Kelley wanted them to say. I think that he had control of the experience."

Taffety Punk's Marcus Kyd directed "Burn Your Bookes," which he considers a workshop production. He says he realized that with the obscure material and Byrne's nonlinear approach to storytelling, with its changing points of view, the actors needed always to be very clear, even over-emphatic, about such subtle elements as Kelley's and Dee's penchant for wife-swapping, for example. The actors, says Kyd, need to "know precisely what they're talking about and where they are and what's going on." Even though the production mixes period costumes with flashes of punk aesthetic (band posters on jackets, tattoolike makeup designed by the actors), "everybody is still in 17th-century Prague," says Kyd.

The makeup is Taffety Punk's way of going over the top on a budget. "I never have more than about a thousand dollars. So we're borrowing all this stuff and it's cheaper to safety-pin it than stitch it. It's cheaper to do all sorts of stuff, and I thought, well, let's throw the punk aspect at it. What would make the Renaissance punk? It works for me that Kelley's wearing a Misfits shirt on the back of his jacket."

Folger's 2010-11 season

Henry VIII, in all his contradictory glory, will go under a magnifying glass at Folger Theatre next season, onstage and in an exhibit.

The company's 2010-11 season will open with Shakespeare's "Henry VIII" (Oct. 12-Nov. 21), with Ian Merrill Peakes in the title role, Naomi Jacobson as Henry's queen, Katherine of Aragon, and Karen Peakes as his new love, Anne Boleyn. British director Robert Richmond will direct. Multiple Tony winner William Ivey Long will design the costumes.

The subtitle of "Henry VIII" is "All Is True," notes Janet Alexander Griffin, artistic producer of Folger Theatre. "You can wonder how much we think of 'Henry VIII' is actually fact, and the exhibit, of course, will go into that more and have some of his own books," she says. One of the books, Henry's schoolboy text of Cicero's writings, has an inscription by the young royal -- "Thys boke is myne Prince Henry."

Aaron Posner, a favorite director at Folger Theatre ("Orestes, a Tragic Romp," the "Macbeth" staged with the magician Teller, "Arcadia," "Measure for Measure," "Twelfth Night") will return next season to direct the second and third plays of the season.

First, Posner will stage Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors" (Jan. 25-March 6, 2011), a farce about two sets of identical twins separated at birth, colliding as adults and causing much comic confusion. Griffin says Posner has ideas for doing the play "in a way that he says makes the ridiculous utterly ridiculous."

The season will finish with "Cyrano" (April 26-June 5, 2011) an adaptation of Edmond Rostand's "Cyrano de Bergerac" by Michael Hollinger ("Opus," "Incorruptible," "An Empty Plate in the Cafe du Grand Boeuf") and Posner. Eric Hissom will star. He recently received a Helen Hayes Award for his performance as Bernard Nightingale in Folger Theatre's much-nominated "Arcadia," which Posner directed.

Follow spot

-- Baltimore's Center Stage has announced that Artistic Director Irene Lewis will leave in June 2011 after leading that prominent regional theater for two decades. Lewis's first production at Center Stage was Lillian Hellman's "Watch on the Rhine" in 1980. She became an associate artist and then succeeded Artistic Director Stan Wojewodski Jr. in 1991. During her tenure, Lewis has nurtured many new works and staged plays from every era and tradition. She will become artistic director emeritus.

Horwitz is a freelance writer.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company