Produced by Washington Shakespeare Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Betsy Rosen (foreground) and (l to r) Denman C. Anderson & Abby Wood (Photo: Ray Gniewek)
The Washington Shakespeare Company had originally planned to stage a production of King Lear, but when actor Brian Hemmingsen fell ill the Company substituted an even more interesting choice: it commissioned local playwright Callie Kimball to turn Shakespeare’s lengthy narrative poem, ‘The Rape of Lucrece’, into a play.
Kimball is a gifted writer and I wish that more of her works were in production. But this was a formidable challenge indeed. It is a bold writer who agrees to edit, supplement or otherwise manipulate The Bard. Moreover, Lucrece is more poem than narrative; in large part, it is a meditation on the psychology of the rapist and the agony of the victim. Aside from the rape and Lucrece’s consequent suicide, Shakespeare tells the story in exposition, not scene. Finally, Kimball had a matter of days (she ended up taking three) to complete her task. And the result is a brand spanking new Shakespearean play.
To give the story a sense of forward motion, she put the poem in context. Lucrece (Betty Rosen) is the wife of Collatinus (Theo Hadjimichael), a warrior in the service of the homicidal King Tarquin the Proud. Prince Tarquin (Colin Smith), the King’s son, commands Collatinus’ unit, which includes Collatinus’ best friend Brutus (Parker Dixon) and Lucrece’s father, Lucretius (Robert Lavery). The soldiers debate who among them has the most virtuous wife. To resolve the question they decide to spring a round of surprise home inspections. Only Lucrece is at home; the other wives are out partying and thus Collatinus wins by default. The soldiers go back to camp, but Tarquin, bloated by envy and lust, returns to Collatinus’ house, and to Lucrece. He enters under cover of friendship; rapes her after her servants have gone to sleep, and escapes at dawn with a light heart. Lucrece, believing that her defilement has robbed her of all of her worth, summons Collatinus and his friends, and tells all. After an accusation which is half a confession, Lucrece fatally stabs herself. Enraged, Collatinus turns not against Tarquin but against the King, and the Roman Republic is born.
Kimball views the crime as a component necessary to the creation of an even greater good – the establishment of the Roman Republic – much in the same vein as the Christian view of the fortunate fall (the fall of man in the Garden of Eden made possible the redemption won through the crucifixion and resurrection). To show that Tarquin’s rape of Lucrece was inevitable, and an important element of Rome’s move to a Republic, Kimball introduces the god Janus to the play. The two-faced god, (Denman C. Anderson and Abby Wood), stalks and pronounces the action, taking every opportunity to drive it forward. Moreover, to show that Rome itself was founded as a product of rape, Kimball adds both Silvia, the mother of Romulus and Remus, and the Sabine women, personified by Sabina (Wood and Anderson, again.) Finally, to add comic relief, Kimball invents two handmaidens for Lucrece: Augusta (Anderson, again) and Maia (Wood again).
Kimball is not Shakespeare, of course, but she does contribute good sturdy Elizabethan prose, and supplements the Shakespearean verse with vigorous and witty lines. Resorting principally to iambic pentameter, Kimball insinuates internal rhyme to help the narrative flow. Her invented characters, Augusta and Maia, are comic bumpkins in the Shakespearean tradition, and the detail she puts to the contest which establishes Lucrece’s virtue – barely sketched in Shakespeare’s poem – is both convincing and amusing.
Occasionally, Kimball goes awry. Most noticeably, Janus’ two-faced appearances are too brief and enigmatic to fully convey Kimball’s theme. The god is meant to show the necessity of the rape in the grand scheme of history, but the message is not plainly delivered. “You weep and wonder at inexorable time/And wrongly wish to stay a brutal crime,” Janus’ female aspect warns Lucrece, promisingly. But the male aspect then proceeds to muddy the message. “For fair Lucrece’s pain divideth all/Just as the broad horizon firmly breaks/A baser world from higher realms above/Though sorrow o’erflows at splitting gall.” This pattern repeats itself too frequently for Kimball’s point to be clear (at least to those who did not receive her notes).