The best theater reveals moments of high emotion built on the intersection of intense preparation and the chaos of live performance. By that measure, the best theater experience in DC is Taffety Punk’s Bootleg Shakespeare. This year, the Punks took on Richard III, and unequivocally showed their mastery of Shakespeare’s historical masterpiece.
Here’s how the Bootleg works: some of the best actors in the area get an artfully cut Shakespearean script two months ahead of time, drilling relentlessly as individuals before starting their first and only collective rehearsal session the day the curtain rises at the Folger Theater. They perform for free to a house that’s filled to the brim, which is not an exaggeration. Audience members know that this is the hottest ticket in town; people lined up as early as 4 hours before the show opened to grab tickets, and the wait list swelled to more than 70 people by the time every extra seat was being distributed.
It’s hard to say what made demand so high this year, but I have a guess: Kimberly Gilbert playing Richard III. She’s one of the most dazzling actors in the area, known for bringing heartbreakingly human touches to outsized characters, such as her Helen Hayes Award-winning performance as Marie Antoinette (Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 2014). Her treatment of the archetypically villainous Richard of Gloucester stays in this mold, bringing an almost gentle, watery-eyed compassion that manages to mix amazingly with the master Machiavellian. Her choices steadily tick between the hilariously cynical, the anxiously determined, and a seeming sadness that says, “I’m so sorry that you are in my way and that I must kill you.” Add her control of the stage to that rhythm. The result is the best Richard I’ve seen onstage. Period.
In case you’ve missed the plot of Richard III from English class, Richard is a younger brother of King Edward IV, who emerged from the War of the Roses as a temporary victor, with heirs in hand to boot. Richard wants the throne and engineers the death of a different brother, cons his way into becoming Lord Protector over Edward’s heirs, and strips them of their legitimacy to grab for the throne. He also woos the widow of a former heir over that heir’s dead body in one of the grosser scenes in the Shakespearean canon. He gets the throne, but can’t stop offing people in his paranoia, including the delegitimized children, that drives most of his allies away until he’s finally defeated in battle. The play is very long (the cut Bootleg was a solid three hours with an intermission) and incredibly complicated (the program lists 45 characters), but the Bootleg’s actors and director (Marcus Kyd, Artistic Director of Taffety Punk) had some tricks up their sleeve to deal with the complications, while keeping the atmosphere playful.
The first, and probably most essential, tactic was filling the stage with bodies. Not just the dead bodies that Richard makes or random ensemble members, but carefully doling out Shakespeare’s sprawling number of roles to as many people as they can find. In this case, many hands make light work, leaving Gilbert with the boar’s share of lines (at 711) and limiting the amount of part doubling. This choice is great not only because it makes tracking the multitudinous characters much easier, but also lets each actor make strong choices to deliver deep clarity and focus.
The whole bootleg was thrumming with great examples of this fun character work. Irresistibly first to mention is Tonya Beckman as Queen Margaret, a character who has lost all friends and family, all joy, and a queenship besides. Her gleefully cruel and imprecating interpretation left teeth marks on the nonexistent scenery while still leaving the audience thirsting for more faces for her to step on. My particular favorite was Chris Marino as James Tyrrel, the murderer of the young princes. His quiet, almost rueful attitude chilled me to the bone. These are just two examples of acting brilliance in this Bootleg Richard III, but there’s more: from Todd Scofield’s basso profundo, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh’s brooding ferocity, Jenna Berk’s freewheeling joy, or Esther Williamson’s sharp empathy. The quantity of the quality is what makes Bootleg so amazing.
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Other aspects of the Bootleg contrast this distributed strength of preparation with a collective liveness. Subtly indispensable in these is the role of the Prompter, performed here by Lise Bruneau. A role reaching back hundreds of years, the Prompter resides in a relatively unseen space (in the case of the Bootleg, the front row of seats) with a copy of the script and “prompts” the actor when they forget their lines. A concession to the reality that lines cannot be truly memorized until enacted with their physicality onstage, the Prompter also reminds the audience of the monumental task undertaken by the cast. More than that, the Prompter acts as a link to the living business of the theater, creating play between artists and audience. Encouraging a drum roll from the audience that dragged on as an actor missed their cue from the back of the house, Bruneau’s voice rang through the space, “[ACTOR’s NAME REDACTED], TO THE STAGE!” Bruneau was the net that permitted the cast to take the flying risk of performing an epic like Richard III on such paltry rehearsal time.
Taffety Punk Theatre Company performed Richard III on July 27, 2019 at Folger Theatre
Subtle techniques reveal the Punks’ experience in this unique Bootleg form. Kyd kept entrances rotating from throughout the space, helping the audience break from entrenched visual rote. Like a chess player, Gilbert controlled the center, but never occupied the true center of the stage until her ascension to the crown, whereupon her character’s easy ambition quickly broke. As a whole, the cast’s lack of rehearsal forced a kind of receptivity that is difficult to imitate in more practiced performance; their unfamiliarity with each other’s lines compelled them to listen carefully to their scene partners and stay present in their surroundings.
As a critic and a fan and producer, I see a lot of Shakespeare, at all levels of professionalism. Heck, I do a lot of Shakespeare (admittedly at the bottom end of professionalism). I’ve even worked at a Shakespeare library for nearly a decade. And this Bootleg Richard III has fully reinforced something I previously considered subconsciously: I’d rather see Taffety Punk’s Bootleg than any other Shakespeare production.
Bootleg Richard III by William Shakespeare. Directed by Marcus Kyd. Featuring J.J. Area, James Beaman, Tonya Beckman, Jenna Berk, Theo Black, Katrina Clark, Dan Crane, Liz Daingerfield, Griffen DeLisle, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Briana Gibson Reeves, Kimberly Gilbert, Brit Herring, Marcus Kyd, Percy Kyd Bruneau, Jessica Lefkow, Katelyn Manfre, Chris Marino, Chelsea Mayo, Katie Murphy, Annaliese Neaman, David Pesta, Paul Reisman, Todd Scofield, Morgan Sendek, Erin Sloan, Julia Smouse, Teresa Spencer, Ashley Strand, Michael Dix Thomas, Sara Dabney Tisdale, Julie Weir, and Esther Williamson. Lights by Chris Curtis . Fights by Teresa Spencer . Stage Management by Megan Ball . Prompting by Lise Bruneau. Produced by Taffety Punk. Reviewed by Alan Katz.