Theater review: Taffety Punk Theatre's 'Burn Your Bookes'

WILD LIFE: Daniel Flint and Esther Williamson in
WILD LIFE: Daniel Flint and Esther Williamson in "Burn." (Teresa Castracane)
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By Nelson Pressley
Monday, May 10, 2010

The Taffety Punk Theatre Company has certainly found a script it can swagger around in with Richard Byrne's "Burn Your Bookes." The scene is late 16th-century Europe, the subject is alchemy, and the story bristles with misdirection and treachery.

The acting in director Marcus Kyd's lean, fervent production is never what you'd call subdued, though you can't say the experienced cast overcooks Byrne's material. In fact, the actors seem eager to meet the cold fury of the dialogue, as mad scientists and their wives get swept up in the sketchy business of divining mystical visions from crystal balls and trying to turn junk into gold.

Byrne's plot is thickened to porridge, though, as he charts the machinations of would-be alchemist Edward Kelley. How to sum up the story? It's 1587, and this gang of real English figures (including mathematician John Dee) is abroad in Bohemia. Queen Elizabeth sends word she'd like to know of Dee's alchemical efforts -- Spain is a threat, and England needs every possible advantage -- but how that connects with the wife-swapping between Kelley and Dee that takes up much of the drama's first part is hard to follow. (Kelley says he saw it in the crystal ball, so there they are.)

A certain amount is revealed in Part 2, with Kelley -- a gothic presence in great sideburns, played with lowlife menace by Daniel Flint -- smugly confessing his duplicity to former associates now in chains. Part 3 largely belongs to Kelley's stepdaughter, the young poet Elizabeth Jane Weston, penning verses to plead for the now-jailed Kelley. Publication, marriage proposals and unexpected death threats ensue for this heavily taxed lass.

This over-dense finish is worth watching largely for the feral performance of Kimberly Gilbert, a busy performer with this troupe and with Woolly Mammoth. Gilbert brings an angry energy and quicksilver thinking to Westonia (as Weston is called), who is spiritually tormented yet on the brink of both fame and love. Byrne packs too much into the role, but Gilbert is up to the rapid mood swings.

Visually, Kyd goes punk, with creepy, distorted music in Josh Taylor's sound design, costumes by Scott Hammar that scruffily bridge the centuries and face paint that gives the characters a faint warrior quality. That makeup is hard to see in Chris Holland's low light, though, even in the cozy confines of the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (where the seating is fewer than 10 rows deep).

The show practically works up a pirate aesthetic, which of course suits the lawlessness and double-crossing of Byrne's script. But the production matches Byrne too well in its relentlessness. (This is the play's premiere, and Kyd has termed this a workshop production.) A little nuance wouldn't hurt; the script's pell-mell pace plus the persistent high-wire intensity of the acting aren't quite a lustrous formula.

Pressley is a freelance writer.

Burn Your Bookes

By Richard Byrne. Directed by Marcus Kyd. With Will Cooke, Eric Messner, Joel David Santner, Peter Stray, Eva Wilhelm, Mark Ross and Esther Williamson. About two hours. Through May 22 at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 Seventh St. SE. Call 800-838-3006 or visit

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