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Venus and Adonis

An Elizabethan Peep Show

Taffety Punk Theatre Company, Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, Washington, D.C.
Friday, April 19, 2024, Second row, left side
Directed by Marcus Kyd; Choreography by Erin Mitchell Nelson

Lise Bruneau and Tonya Beckmen stand behind their music stands, looking at each other with big smiles and Beckman casually pointing a finger at Bruneau
Lise Bruneau, left, and Tonya Beckman serve as narrators as well as characters in the Taffety Punk production of William Shakespeare's narrative poem Venus and Adonis at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop in Washington, D.C. The title characters are featured in Francois Boucher's painting in the background. Photo by Marcus Kyd.

Taffety Punk Theatre Company is a small but brightly shining gem in the Washington, D.C., theater scene, a richly talented acting company displaying a brilliantly inventive willingness to explore conceptual stagings of William Shakespeare’s works. This includes those narrative poems at the back of your edition of Shakespeare's Complete Works.

Their 2012 production of The Rape of Lucrece used a three-piece rock band providing a heavy metal aural landscape. A punkish beat poet narrated the action, including a leering description of Roman Emperor Tarquin raping his friend’s wife, Lucrece. The bass player enacted Lucrece, the drummer spoke her husband’s lines, an actor played Tarquin, and a dancer presented “Lucrece’s Shadow,” visually supplementing Shakespeare’s verse. The guitarist directed the production: Taffety Punk Cofounding Artistic Director Marcus Kyd.

He also was at the helm in staging yet another of Shakespeare's narrative poems last month, Venus and Adonis—sans guitar. Kyd told me he originally planned to use the same format for Venus and Adonis as he did for The Rape of Lucrece. Venus, however, talks so much nobody else would get much to do. So, Kyd went with two narrators (Lise Bruneau, Taffety Punk cofounder, and Tonya Beckman, who was The Rape of Lucrece narrator), each standing behind music stands bearing their scripts. Kyd added in a dancer (Sarina Martinez de Osaba) performing to interludes of recorded original music by sound designer Kathy Cashel. The stage in the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop's 50-seat theater was otherwise bare, except for the backdrop, François Boucher's 18th century painting of Venus and Adonis divided on two panels. Both narrators wore black jackets over purple t-shirts (Beckman’s bearing the female O over + symbol).

The scaled-down format works for Venus and Adonis because the poetry is so much more visual than that of the contemplative portrayals in Lucrece. Venus is more melodic, too, with six-line stanzas in ababcc rhyming schemes as opposed to Lucrece’s seven-line, ababbcc stanzas. Indeed, the light and airy verses of Venus and Adonis lend themselves well to this presentation, as long as you have such mischievously cheeky presenters as Beckman and Bruneau.

Shakespeare obviously had a lot of fun writing this in 1593 as he waited out the plague's closing of the public theater. By then he had made a name for himself as a playwright, but Venus and Adonis made him the Elizabethan equivalent of a pop star with 16 editions of the poem printed and “innumerable literary references” by 1640 (sayeth The New Penguin Shakespeare 1989 edition of The Narrative Poems).

In portraying Venus’s antics as she tries to seduce the reluctant, ultravirgin Adonis, Shakespeare draws a conniving, egotistical, spoiled, and sex-craving woman who would be a Bravo reality show star trending excessively on social media. His words create such vivid visualizations they include stage directions within the poem’s dialogue. “What seest thou in the ground? hold up thy head,” Venus tells Adonis at one point: “Look in mine eyeballs, there thy beauty lies.” Even Shakespeare’s tangents are entertaining, like the literal rabbit hole he goes down describing how a hare can outsmart hunting hounds, a literary prototype for Bugs Bunny. Another such tangent, albeit part of the plot, goes on for 11 stanzas (66 lines) describing the mating dance between Adonis’s steed and a “breeding jennet, lusty, young and proud.” The plot point is how the steed runs off with its new girlfriend leaving Adonis no way to escape the goddess who would be his girlfriend; but Shakespeare seems overly ebullient in the vivid details of equine aphrodisia.

Venus and Adonis could well have been Elizabethan porn—perhaps why it had so many reprints. The mythological Goddess of Love is its central character, but conflates love with lust. As Adonis chides her,

Love comforteth like sunshine after rain,
But Lust's effect is tempest after sun.
Love's gentle spring doth always fresh remain;
Lust's winter comes ere summer half be done.
Love surfeits not, Lust like a glutton dies.
Love is all truth, Lust full of forged lies.

Adonis, however, is an extremist in his own right. In resisting Venus, he tells her, “Before I know myself, seek not to know me.” This kid is, what, late teens and he hasn't yet "known himself?"

And yet here's Venus, the lover of two gods and three mortals according to classical mythology, advertising herself to Adonis as a dominatrix. She describes how she “overruled” and “overswayed” Mars, the God of War, “Leading him prisoner in a red-rose chain.” However, she offers something much more pleasurable for Adonis.

"Fondling," she saith, "since I have hemmed thee here
Within the circut of this ivory pale,
I'll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer;
Feed where thou wilt, on mountain or in dale:
Graze on my lips; and if those hills be dry,
Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie."

Ruminating on that will get many a man to knowing themselves, yet it doesn't bestir Adonis even when the self-described "ivory park" has wrapped her arms around him.

Venus also seduces Adonis as a stockbroker would her clients. She offers kisses as a simple interest-bearing product: “Give me one kiss, I’ll give it thee again, and one for int'rest, if thou wilt have twain.” But she pushes for something with much higher yields:

A thousand kisses buys my heart from me;
And pay them at thy leisure, one by one.
What is ten hundred touches unto thee?
Are they not quickly told and quickly gone?
Say, for non-payment that the debt should double,
Is twenty hundred kisses such a trouble?

Beckman laces these calculations with thrilling coyness until the last line, which Bruneau delivers in a matter-of fact tone.

The only inch Adonis will give is to promise he will let her kiss him if she says, “Good-night.” Uh-oh. In her playing this moment, Bruneau unleashes Venus's responding “Good-night” with such intense anticipation that "ere he says adieu,'” her “arms do lend his neck a sweet embrace” and “face grows to face.” In no time her “thirsty lips” are “glued” to his as they “fall to the earth” and “glutton-like she feeds, yet never filleth” until “she will draw his lips' rich treasure dry.” Adonis manages to escape, but Venus catches him again and this time falls backward with him on top of her. “Now is she in the very lists of love, her champion mounted for the hot encounter”—mounted but “He will not manage her." That would merit a sexual assault charge against Venus today.

In his opening night pre-show comments, Kyd quoted one his teachers saying, “Literature is to be read, drama to be seen, and poetry to be heard.” That’s especially true in the vocals of Beckman and Bruneau. With their classical theater training and their intellectual grasp of the verse, Beckman and Bruneau deliver Shakespeare's words as multidimensional characterizations of Venus, Adonis, and the horses. Still, while hearing it from these two is definitely good, seeing it is better.

Martinez de Osaba in blue paints, blue dress, and red top pauses bent over at the waist, standing on her right foot, her left foot extended high behind her and her left arm, grasped by her right hand, extended out in fron of her lowered head.
Sarina Martinez de Osaba performs a dance sequence in Taffety Punk's production of William Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop in Washington, D.C. With original music by Kathy Cashel, the dances served as brief, visual interludes to the poem's narration. Photo by Marcus Kyd.

Bruneau and Beckman are gleeful in describing Venus’s ongoing chase of Adonis. They are urging and pouting in speaking Venus’s enticements. They are befuddled but proud in portraying Adonis’s resistance. They are frisky or calculating in portraying the steed or lusty jennet. They delightfully rhyme how species gain eternal life via copulation, something Venus harps on a couple of times. Her trying to convince Adonis to breed with her so she can create his copy is a theme Shakespeare revisits in Twelfth Night and his sonnets.

They manage the six-syllable lines with rhythmic ease, and they don’t trip up on such Original Pronunciation rhymes as “good” with “blood,” “gone” with “one,” “heaven" with "even,” "voice" with "juice." Indeed, Shakespeare’s clever rhyming choices prompted much laughter in the opening night audience. When the poem turns tragic—and then isn’t, but then is (Shakespeare plays the couple’s ultimate fate like a yo-yo)—the narrators inject just a hint of haunting dread, keeping the audience on its toes. Both narrators seem to be having the time of their lives living this poem’s world; not surprising as both have a consistent track record of revelatory acting performances.

The narrators share the poem’s 1,194-line load equally, but not with any structural consistency. Instead of trading off stanza to stanza, their exchanges insert aural variety. Sometimes its line to line, sometimes within lines, such as, one narrator inserting "Quoth she" as the other carries on Venusian exuberance. In one stanza, Beckman’s fervor grows to near hyperventilation by the time the final couplet describes how Venus “kissed his brow, his cheek, his chin”—“Hey, OK!” Bruneau stops her. A chagrined Beckman pulls the reins on her ardor as Bruneau speaks the stanza’s last line, “And where she ends she doth anew begin.”

At one point, when Venus questions why Adonis abhors her, the narrators divide the stanza's first four lines into individual descriptive phrases:

Tonya Beckman: “Were I hard-favour’d,”
Lise Bruneau: “foul,”
TB: “or wrinkled-old,”

LB: “Ill-nurtured,”
TB: “crooked,”
LB: “churlish,”
TB: “harsh in voice,

LB: “O’erworn,”
TB: “despised,”
LB: “rheumatic”
TB: “and cold,”

LB: “Thick-sighted,”
TB: “barren,”
LB: “lean”
TB: “and lacking juice,”—

They pause there, either because that last descriptor is so over-the-top even for Venus or to let the audience release their pent-up laughter. Or maybe they are just following Shakespeare’s internal stage direction in the final couplet:

Then mightst thou pause, for then I were not for thee;
But having no defects, why dost abhor me?

If you are going to read through Shakespeare’s Complete Works, for goodness sakes don’t end with The Two Noble Kinsmen or The Winter’s Tale (depending on the order of plays your version follows). Continue on into the poems, particularly Venus and Adonis. The Sonnets have their moments, The Rape of Lucrece is momentous, and I’ve not secured a moment to read The Phoenix and Turtle. But Venus and Adonis is a moment in itself. Especially on stage.

Eric Minton
May 23, 2024

Arden's "William Shakespeare Complete Works"ASIDE: Completing the Canon

Triple crowns, crossing the equator, EGOT: Every profession, sport, and hobby has an ultimate goal. Completing the canon is the Shakespearean's goal. Actors are toasted when they have performed in every one of Shakespeare's plays while fans strive to see every Shakespeare play at least once in their lifetime. I completed the canon in one calendar year, 2018.

Except I really didn't.

First, what do we mean by William Shakespeare's canon? Traditionally, it's the 36 plays in the First Folio, plus Pericles. Plus, perhaps, The Two Noble Kinsmen. Plus, perhaps, four plays scholars believe bear Shakespeare's hand: Sir Thomas More, Edward III, The Spanish Tragedy, and Arden of Faversham. That total of 42 plays is what I saw in 2018—see The Shakespeare Canon Project here. I completed the 38-play canon with Henry VIII in 2010.

But what about those other pieces of poetry at the back of your edition of Shakespeare's Complete Works (or at the front of the Arden version, pictured above)? Shakespeare also wrote 154 sonnets and three narrative poems. I did not attend performances of any of those in 2018 when I witnessed his 42 theatrical works.

Over my lifetime I have seen staged presentations of his sonnets, The Rape of Lucrece, and Venus and Adonis, the last twice now thanks to Taffety Punk. My first Venus and Adonis was a 1987 live reading in London featuring three Royal Shakespeare Company members, including Imelda Staunton playing Venus.

I still need to see The Phoenix and Turtle in performance to achieve the Narrative Poems Triple Crown and credit myself a Canon Completist.—EM



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