Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A hybrid play mined from a hybrid art

I was in Washington, D.C. Friday night for the opening of Taffety Punk Theatre's premiere production of Burn Your Bookes by my old friend Richard Byrne.

It is a challenging play, set in Bohemia during the flux of the European Renaissance. The title is, at a glance, misleading, because this is not a play about censorship. It is a play about alchemy - the art (con art, many would say) of transmuting less valuable metals into gold.

Alchemy was a hybrid pursuit, and Richard crafted a hybrid play out of it. He subtitles his play, in three acts, as a "tryptych," to signal its hybrid character. It tells three different stories, about the same cast of characters, with three different techniques, rather than plotting one storyline through three mutually modulated acts.

When I took my seat in the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop on Friday night, I had read acts one and two and seen a video of act two workshopped at the Kennedy Center in 2008. Though Richard had entrusted me with a PDF of the entire play, I purposefully held off on reading the third act, wanting to be surprised at the premiere; and indeed I was surprised, very pleasantly so.

Act one is, in essence, a domestic drama about relationships in and between the families of two English alchemists, Edward Kelley and John Dee, who both have turned up in the court of Emperor Rudolph II in Bohemia. There was a sort of free agency in alchemists at this time, with monarchs and emperors poaching from each other the alchemists that had the buzz of having a hot hand - the mystical ability of enriching the treasury without finding and mining for gold.

One problem with mystics, among many others, is that you can't contain their mysticism to the sphere of infuence that interests you. Kelley also has seen faeries in his glass (in essence, his crystal ball) that speak of wife swapping; and if there is one thing more volatile than two alchemists cooped up in a foreign court, it is two wife-swapping alchemists so cooped up. Richard mines some vivid, if at times confusing, dramatics out of this rich material.

Act two is another animal altogether. If act one resembles a superheated Jacobean domestic drama in form, the technique of act two is taken straight out of Samuel Beckett, with all his forlorn, infighting, often paralyzed duets. The act is almost entirely a dialogue between two stationary alchemists, imprisoned in adjacent cages for fraud and failure.

The fraud has grown accustomed to his fate. He knows he has cheated and was caught and is determined to make the most out of whatever life is left to him. His neighbor has failed, rather than faked, and like most failures in most media, he is certain that success almost had been his and certainly would be, if he could only be let out of his cage and back into the fire of active pursuit.

Their duality is an idiosyncratic variant of a classic opposition - and the playwright makes the most of it, alternating howlers with lines of sparking beauty and metaphysical truth.

I have digested act three less fully, since Friday was my first exposure to it and I have not found the time to return to the text since I got back home to St. Louis. After the entirely male domain of act two, it opens into the female world of Elizabeth Jane Weston, aka Westonia, a pioneering woman poet and the stepdaughter of the alchemist Kelley.

Really, act three is about the struggles of composition and the agonies of enduring someone else's editorial judgments, all finely tempered by gender politics which came as a major surprise to me. The alchemical themes and storylines of acts one and two are revisited and wrapped up, while the imagination is taken in an entirely new direction.

This new departure near the end that does not feel gratuitous nor irrelevant is a defining hallmark of successful longform writing. Just try to do it - I have tried - it is amazingly difficult to achieve.

I find I have said nothing about the production, directed by Marcus Kyd, but this is getting long, as it is; so I will return, later, to discuss the fun the Taffety Punks had with this difficult but rich play.


Image of Dee and Kelley raising a ghost is out there all over the web without attribution; hence none here.

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