The cast of Taffety Punk's Rulebreaker Rep: two shows about 19th Century poets who broke the rules long before it was considered cool.
Charm is a magical retelling of Margaret Fuller's adventures with the Transcendentalists. (Courtesy of Ryan Nelson/Taffety Punk)
The way veteran D.C. theater artist Lise Bruneau puts it, when it comes to Taffety Punk — the D.C.-based theater company she co-founded 10 years ago — “anything goes.”
And she’s not kidding. This, after all, is a theater company that’s produced all-female versions of "Julius Caesar" and "Titus Andronicus," that’s set Shakespeare’s poem "The Rape of Lucrece" to live punk music, and that’s taken conversations from actual suicide chat rooms on the internet, and turned them into a dance piece.
“We're not interested in being flip,” Bruneau explains. “But we are finding ways to take the message of the play even further, and have more fun with it.”
And Bruneau and company are having a heck of a lot of fun right now, as they gear up for the “Rulebreaker Rep”: a repertory of two plays, performed on alternating days. "Charm" by Kathleen Cahill is being directed by Kelsey Mesa. And Bruneau is directing Howard Brenton’s "Bloody Poetry."
Bruneau says the Rulebreaker Rep is all “about writers, it’s about poets, and free thinkers, forward thinkers, people who were trying to change the world.”
Bloody Poetry explores the complex relationship among three of the English language’s most renowned writers — Lord Byron, and Percy and Mary Shelley — and Mary’s half-sister, Claire Clairmont.
“To all accounts, Shelley and Mary Shelley and Mary’s half-sister were in a three-way marriage,” Bruneau says.
And the Shelleys were passionate about meeting Lord Byron, “who is another rule breaker,” Bruneau says. “He hangs out with whores and squanders his money, is drunk all the time and makes a public display of himself. But he’s a genius poet – and is someone that is looking to challenge society’s norms.”
The story goes that Claire had once had an affair with Lord Byron, so she arranged the big meeting. All four of them spent a summer together in Italy, where, Bruneau says, “they throw down about poetry, morality… It’s really wild to be in the room with these four people navigating this impossible, impossible stuff!”
Unlike Bloody Poetry, which is grounded in a more realistic style, Charm tends more toward magic, Bruneau says, as it tells of Margaret Fuller’s relationship with the transcendentalists: Thoreau, Emerson and Hawthorne.
“This sort of pits a very strong thinking woman, a very forward thinking woman, among men who aren't quite ready to handle it,” Bruneau says. “Here is a woman who feels bound by her learning, by her brain and her feistiness, and is dying for a boyfriend! She basically just wants to get married and have kids. But of course, she’s a fierce thinker and no one is able to see her in a sexual way.”
Bruneau says the play shows “the suffering [Fuller] goes through with this, and the various people she fights along the way,” before showing “her ultimate trip to Italy, where most of her questions are answered.”
While both plays in the Rulebreaker Rep involve real-life characters, Bruneau says audiences should enjoy themselves regardless of their familiarity with these historical figures.
“I think that there are lots of hidden treats for people who do know [these figures],” she says. “But if you don’t, you get enough information about who they are and how much trouble they caused, how many lawsuits there were, how many times they had to flee to Italy or Switzerland, that there’s plenty to keep everybody busy.”
One of Bruneau’s favorite things to say about these rabble-rousing literary figures is that “you can't make this stuff up.”
“My impression of that [time] period is that, of course, everybody is very uptight,” she says. “But these folks… they're incredible. So it’s so wonderful to find classically-based plays that are even more punk than we are. You know, it just feels great.”
Music: "The Modern Dance" by Pere Ubu from The Modern Dance