In the black-box theater at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, Marcus Kyd — whose hair is currently dyed the traffic-light yellow favored by seventh-grade boys circa 2003 — is directing a rehearsal for Taffety Punk Theatre Company’s upcoming production of “The Rape of Lucrece.”
The rehearsal couldn’t feel less like a rehearsal. Instead the vibe is somewhere in between a garage-band practice and an improv workshop. The music tidal waves over the poetry, occasionally drowning out Shakespeare’s words entirely.
“The words are really the star of the show,” Kyd says during a break. “The rest of us are in service to that.” As for the possible sound effects abuse, “The distortion [through the speakers] takes the voice somewhere the human voice can’t go. . . . To me, it’s all still honoring the poem. If someone loses the logic, that’s fine for me.”
Shakespeare’s epic poem — in which a man comes, sees and conquers the doomed woman of the show’s title — is interpreted by the cast alternately through rock music, text and action. (In addition to directing, Kyd plays the guitar and does voices during the performance).
Taffety has taken on Shakespeare before, with all-female versions of “Romeo and Juliet,” “Measure for Measure,” and “Julius Caesar,” along with “bootleg” productions of others, one-time only shows for which the cast has just one rehearsal. “Lucrece” marks the first time Taffety is tackling Shakespeare full force: a coed cast, a 2-week run.
Most of the cast consists of Taffety company members. Kimberly Gilbert, who is also in the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, plays Lucrece and the bass. Joel David Santner plays Tarquin, Lucrece’s assailant; Tonya Beckman is the narrator. Dan Crane (a frequent collaborator but not a Taffety member) plays Collatine and doubles as the drummer.
Beckman reads: “Wrapped and confounded in a thousand fears / Like to a new-killed bird she trembling lies . . . ” as the music gets louder and louder and—
“Excuse me? Hey, can you please keep it down?” Someone from CHAW has popped her head in the door. “There are music lessons going on upstairs.”
She leaves, and everyone looks at each other with expressions that essentially say: Turn it down? This is loud? Which just confirms: Yeah, this is exactly like a garage-band practice.
Take two. Beckman keeps reading, and the guitar kicks in, the drumming intensifies, the music rises, rises, rises, like smoke in a fire. Tonya’s voice is underneath it somewhere; you can’t hear her anymore, but you can feel the song, literally feel it, pulsing through the floor.
“That was awesome!” Kyd cheers when the scene is over. “It’s a little effed up,” he adds. “But that’s why it works.”
When Kyd, a D.C. native, actor and punk rocker (his most successful band, The Most Secret Method, toured in the 1990s) met Erin Mitchell, a classically trained ballerina from outside Richmond, in 2003, they had the same problem.
“Actors and dancers are, with rare exception, migrant workers,” said Kyd. “We’re always out of work every two to three months and are knocking on doors for jobs.”
Mitchell “had pretty much left the dance world in frustration” seeking greater job security and was house managing at the Kennedy Center for “Shear Madness,” in which Kyd was playing Mikey Thomas. They realized they shared a vision for how the arts should be. Besides craving consistent employment, they also felt theater and dance had gotten far too expensive.
“The fact that I moved almost exclusively into a world where tickets for shows were 40, 50, 80 bucks, just made me sick to my stomach,” said Kyd. “I actually can’t afford to see theater.”
Their ideal company would be affordable, employ the same artists over and over, and make theater and dance more accessible to the public. The only catch with that ideal company: It didn’t exist yet.
“So,” said Kyd. “We just decided to have a show.”
Mitchell and Kyd teamed up with Lise Bruneau, Amanda MacKaye and Christopher Marino to found Taffety Punk Theatre Company in 2004. Their first effort was a show in the back room at the Black Cat in December. Tickets to the performance, “The Devil in His Own Words,” went for $7. Almost 100 people showed up. Taffety raked in $200 for the night.
They immediately started planning for their next ventures, keeping to their basic tenets — cheap tickets, punk ethos, collaboration — earning nonprofit status in 2007 and churning out 33 shows during the next eight years.
Ticket prices have stayed low; it’ll only set you back $10 to see “Lucrece.” According to Kyd, attendance for one night shows is between 300-400 people. At CHAW, where productions typically run from 12 to 16 weeks and capacity is about 60, Taffety averages about 45 patrons per show.
Taffety is the resident theater company at CHAW, but it books all over town, appearing this year at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre, Round House Theatre in Silver Spring, Arena Stage and the Kennedy Center.
The eight active company members, mostly 30-somethings, all have at least one other job to pay the bills: some teaching, some in the arts, some at offices. Kyd, 41, is the education director at Everyman Theatre in Baltimore.
Kyd is loath to put a label on the kind of work Taffety produces. He described projects that attract the company as “any epic story that allows us to exploit music and dance” and estimates their repertoire is evenly split between classic plays and original work.
The term “Taffety Punk” is Shakespeare-speak for “well-dressed whore,” which was the just-right something old, something new mashup the Taffety founders were going for. Kyd had read the phrase in “All’s Well That Ends Well.”
“I thought it was so cool that the word ‘punk’ was that old,” Kyd said. “[And it’s] how we feel as artists: having to be subject to the whims of our pimps. . . . That sense [of], here we are, these powerless creatures that actually have no money, but then we dress up and go hog-wild and try to entertain people.”
Gilbert is on the ground, on her side, feigning sleep.
“Let’s see where this leads,” says Kyd.
Gilbert raises her eyebrows. “We know where it leads.”
Kyd, sounding nauseous: “Oh God.”
Santner begins to recite his lines as he prowls, catlike, across the floor, taking care not to wake his victim. “The color in thy face / That even for anger makes the lily pale. . . . Thy beauty hath ensnared thee to this night.”
They pause for a minute. “It’s all about how, ‘You’re very pretty,’ ” says Santner.
Kyd nods. “It’s, ‘You shouldn’t have worn that dress if you didn’t want me to do this.’ That’s what he’s saying.”
Everyone is quiet for a second.
“Men are terrible,” says Kyd.
Crane, from the other side of the room: “They really are.”
Santner bends over Gilbert. His knee hits the ground with a soft thud. His fingers hover an inch away from her body. When she startles awake, his hand is already over her mouth.
“Lucrece,” he says. “Tonight I must enjoy thee.”
“This poem has always been important to us,” said Kyd, who’s been “messing around” with “Lucrece” for the past seven years. “The more and more I read it, the more relevant, the more shocking, the more exciting, the more important it becomes to me.”
For a piece of work that’s more than 400 years old, “The Rape of Lucrece” doesn’t feel quite so dated, with everything from the use of the term “legitimate rape” by Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) this past August to the suicide of Amina al-Filali, a 16-year-old Moroccan girl who downed a lethal amount of rat poison after being pressured by local authorities into marrying her rapist, making headlines this year.
“[The poem] is a story about this act of violence that should not be and sadly still exists in the world,” said Kyd. “Everything Lucrece goes through before and after is, note for note, everything women are still dealing with. . . . So we’re trying to approach it with that amount of reverence.”
Stanzas have been sliced to keep the show tight, about 45 to 60 minutes, the same length as an average set for a band. “Maybe we can take it around,” Kyd says, “play with bands somewhere.”
It’s pretty heavy material to be spliced between rock sets, but Kyd is optimistic about people’s openness to the performance. “There are things that I don’t even know [the audience] is going to experience,” he said.
Or what the actors are going to experience. “We’re still in that exploration phase,” he said. “I can’t even tell you how it ends.”
Sept. 27 - Oct. 5, the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th St. SE, www.taffetypunk.com, 202-261-6612