By the time Bloody Poetry, Howard Brenton’s 1984 play of the romantic poets, begins in the current Taffety Punk production, Percy Byshhe Shelley is already en route to Switzerland with his wife Mary Shelley and her sister Claire Clairemont, who is also his lover. Previously he had been married to their even younger sister, who died by suicide.
There is so much gossip and notoriety and emotional baggage they scarcely need luggage for clothes. And their reason to get to Lake Geneva in 1816 is not just to escape what serves at that era’s paparazzi (engraverazzi perhaps?) but to fulfill Claire’s desire that they meet (and she meet once again) her former lover Lord Byron. Here was a meeting demanded by Romantic literature majors for all time, if not for these Victorian era Kardashians.
Ian Armstrong plays Byron as larger than life, a characteristic he also brings to Ralph Waldo Emerson in the other play in Taffety Punk Theatre Company’s current Rulebreaker Rep, Charm. And in both cases, the characterization fits, though Shelley (Dan Crane) doesn’t at first know how to deal with it. Is his praise real? Will they be good colleagues?
Lisa Bruneau, who is the lead in Chase, directs ‘Bloody Poetry’ across the same Black Box theater expanse from front to back of the house to front again, keeping things lively even when Brenton’s story slows.
There is drinking and talk of carousing (nothing occurs on stage) and lots of quoting of poetry real or imagined. And at some point the men have to put a thought to their own legacy even if they’ve long since given up on their reputations.
And what use are the women in this play that seems to go on just a tad longer than it needs to be? As opposed to Charm, the other play in this literary repertory, women are more ornamental and part of life’s complications more than actual muses or people in their own right.
Indeed Mary Shelley (Esther Williamson) may arguably be enjoying the longest and most popular literary reputation of all of them thanks to her single horror volume, “Frankenstein,” which continues to be adapted, most recently on the new Showtime series “Penny Dreadful.”
But the connections to that classic are fleeting indeed; the idea comes when she sees a looming shadow on the back curtain, a man turned monster.
Lisa Bruneau, who is the lead in Chase, directs Bloody Poetry across the same Black Box theater expanse from front to back of the house to front again, keeping things lively even when Brenton’s story slows.
Things get spicy when the earlier drowned wife (played by Amanda Forstrom) emerges in a flashback, the water represented by long, gauzy fabric. Mostly, the story is told through the eyes of one Dr. William Polidori (James Flanagan), who sits in town with binoculars, as if waiting the gossip press to be invented.
The length of the story finally undoes it. We see where it’s ending, no need to go all the way there, even if the verses are lovely to hear along the way.
Running Time: Two hours, 15 minutes with one intermission.
Advisory: Complicated adult themes and occasional vulgarities.
Bloody Poetry runs through May 31 at Taffety Punk Theatre Company, in its Rulebreaker Rep, in residence at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th St SE, Washington, D.C. Call 202-355-9441 or visit online.