by John Stoltenberg
So far as I can tell, Catholic University of America’s Drama Department turns out a lot of local talent. I keep seeing mentions of it in program bios around town. Must be something good going on there, I’ve thought to myself. But before Bloody Poetry, I had not seen an actual CUA production (for which, as a fan and proponent of university theater, I claim no excuse). And what I saw made me appreciate how an academic theater program sets high bars to make students stretch.
Bloody Poetry kicked off the school’s 2016-2017 season, which aims, an online note says, to “examine what dreams and nightmares motivate people to seek a better future.” The 1984 play by Howard Brenton is about English lit notables Percy Bysshe Shelly and Lord George Gordon Byron and their circle of mistresses, hangers-on, and wives.
Though hoity-toity literary in its language, Bloody Poetry depicts its protagonists’ loves and lusts with the lurid candor of the National Enquirer and Real World. If you were looking for a play to catch the attention of an academic crowd who wouldn’t be caught dead in a dead poets society, Bloody Poetry would be a relatable pick. Given all the play’s historically accurate sexual goings-on, the Romantic Age might well be called the Randy Age. The text is also very frank about the era’s rampant STDs, so there’s a subtle safer sex message as well.
The school’s resources were well deployed. Costume Designer Julie Cray-Leong provided beautifully lacy gowns for the ladies and handsome vests and great coats for the gents. Scenic Designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s evocative painted backdrop could seem both land and sea. Lighting Designer Dr. Tom Donahue’s plot worked well (though quite a few cues seemed too abrupt). Director Gregg Henry created some powerful stage pictures and tell-tale tableau and made wonderful use of the wide wine-red curtain, which at one point was hoist by Bysshe like a sail and at another became the water in which his abandoned wife Harriet Westbrook drowned herself. And Sound Designer Justin Schmitz offered a simply stunning soundscape—one of the finest I can recall hearing in live theater. It ranged from lovely interludes of classical music to undertones of undulating sea and seemed the compelling emotional underscore of the entire production.
Six student actors played the history-based roles: Dylan Fleming (a horndog Lord Byron), Desiree Chappelle (Claire Clairemont, Byron’s bodacious mistress), Danielle Scott (a timid Mary Shelly, who will become the second Mrs. Bysshe—and during the play gets her idea to write Frankenstein), Noah Beye (a leading-man-looks Bysshe and Byron’s peer in philandery), Morgan Wilder (Bysshe’s betrayed first wife Harriet Westbrook, whose suicidal monolog starts Act Two), and Kevin S. Boudreau (a prudish Dr. William Polidori, who entertains the audience with regular reports on all the scandals like a priggy TMZ).
The challenge of Brenton’s script for actors is that because it is so literary, so high-flown poetic (really, it invites later reading it’s so lush), it presents a temptation to declaim and proclaim at the expense of finding and feeling the characters’ inner emotional lives. And the cast, while uniformly appealing and earnest, rarely avoided that textual trap.
To paraphase Robert Browning (and perhaps discern CUA’s intent in selecting this challenging play), student actors’ reach should exceed their grasp. Because that’s how they’ll get better.
Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes, including one intermission.
Bloody Poetry played October 13 to 16, 2016, at The Catholic University of America’s Callan Theatre – 3801 Harewood Road NE, in Washington DC. Tickets for the remainder of the Department of Drama’s 2016–2017 season are available online.
‘Bloody Poetry’ at Taffety Punk Theatre Company at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop by Robert Michael Oliver