Edward Kelley, one of the most famous alchemists during the English Renaissance, is the subject of Richard Byrne’s play Burn Your Bookes. What the Taffety Punk Theatre Company contributes are offbeat touches to what would normally classify as your typical period piece.
There is much to admire in Byrne’s pseudo-fictional narrative, ranging from the stark differentiations between Act I and Act II’s portrayal of the shadowy Kelley, to the atmospheric fracas between Kelley and his occultist partner-in-crime John Dee.
Act I finds Kelley (Daniel Flint) and Dee (Will Cooke) operating out of Bohemia under the patronage of count Vilem Rožmberk, where they continue their much-pursued research into black magic. Dee, a staunch believer in the crystal ball, gets harangued by his impatient wife that his studies are all for naught – something that Dee ignores and subsequently will regret. Kelley, always the trickster, begins to develop a plan to cut Dee off from his own royal profiting from the art of alchemy. Claiming the power to convert base metals to precious metals, Kelley – depicted as a cutthroat con artist – siphons Dee’s influence through a falsified mystical experience that ruins his partner’s marriage and forces him to leave the business.
The second act revolves around the other face of Kelley’s Janus – his relationship with stepdaughter and poet Elizabeth Weston (Westonia played by Kimberly Gilbert). Largely absent with the exception of a few cutaway flashbacks, Kelley is depicted as a loving and wise guardian of the young scribe. But her relationship with mother Joan (Eva Wilhelm) remains strained, as Westonia has taken on many traits of her strong-willed, highly-secretive stepfather. History tells us that both Kelley and Weston were graced with the patronage of royalty, and Byrne attempts to pique the audience’s curiosity with how they return the favor.
The performances are the highlight of Burn Your Bookes, marked by keen delivery of Olde English conversation and onstage magnetism. Flint’s Kelley is stocked with gleeful conceit, crawling under the skins of audience members with his poetic guile. Waddling around, gripping his cane, Flint barks orders and greases palms in the first act; in the following act, he’s a committed caregiver with a clean suit and shave. Cooke’s performance as an obsessive but well-respected John Dee is also commendable, since his onstage chemistry with Jane Dee (Esther Williamson) contributes some of the first act’s most provoking pathos. He also appears to be the only actor comfortable in Taffety Punk’s unusual costuming choices.
Gilbert’s portrayal of Elizabeth Weston doesn’t bolster the second act as well as the sinister, more claustrophobic tone of first act performances. She’s not to blame; the default tech aspects (especially the lighting irregularities from Act I) conflict with her heightened level of energy. The stark contrast between the acts is not entirely defined, and due to the second act’s brevity, Gilbert isn’t given enough of a chance to shine. Despite Weston’s occasionally frustrating behavior, Gilbert breathes life into the eccentric and famed poet.
Its limited technical aspects – dim candlelight schemes and muddled waltz recordings – are somewhat responsible for Bookes’ stagnant murkiness. There are the aforementioned oddities in costuming and makeup, where characters sport ironic punk patches on their clothing and face paint is the norm. There is no explanation given to these choices other than the company’s namesake, and they don’t fit well with the material. But these are only minor gripes, since Burn Your Bookes puts some finishing touches on Kelley’s story, a history that has rarely seen a complete picture.
Burn Your Bookes
written by Richard Byrne
directed by Marcus Kyd
presented by Taffety Punk Theatre Company
reviewed by Phil Calabro
Burn Your Bookes through May 22, 2010.
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.
Nelson Pressley . Washington Post