The 265 seven-line stanzas of Shakespeare’s 1594 poem The Rape of Lucrece occupies 20 pages of tiny print in my huge Riverside Shakespeare. A poeticized account of a prince’s rape of his cousin’s wife in 509 BC, an assault that helped usher in the Roman Republic, it’s loaded with dialogue and soliloquy, a precursor to the Bard’s great tragedies. Adapting it into a stage play would seem a daunting challenge, but one that makes a certain kind of sense too.
Much of the lengthy first act of Kevin Brewer’s adaptation is a kind of prequel to the poem’s action, written in rhyming iambic pentameter with a smooth mix of colloquial phrasing and slightly elevated diction. That in itself is an enormous accomplishment. The script creates fleshed-out Shakespearean characters out of historical personages whom Shakespeare encrusted in poetical finery. The cast bring to life the Roman nobles Collatinus, Lucrece’s husband (Shawn Williams); Spurius, her father (Pat Dwyer); Publius (Joel Oramas); and most vividly of all, Brutus (Brandon Garegnani), more a drunken braggart than the fool history says he acted, but immensely entertaining. The script creates two additional memorable characters: Erik Olson is droll as the prince’s ward/servant Caius, and Gabby Beans is wonderfully deep as Mirabelle, Lucrece’s devoted maidservant and friend.
Leighton Samuels portrays the prince, Sextus Tarquinius, as a kind of vain, mild-mannered sop, cocky yet distracted, never quite 100% present. One can believe the real Tarquin might have been like this. But the characterization becomes a problem as we get closer to Act II and the rape. Mirabelle distrusts him as he worms his way into their home and charms Lucrece with wit and erudition. (Does she prefer the Iliad or the Odyssey, and why?) But he doesn’t show us any of the menace Mirabelle warns her mistress she sees in his eyes.
Shakespeare’s Tarquin is a complex character, by no means a pure beast. He debates with himself for stanzas before resolving to profess his ardor and then use force if Lucrece won’t yield. But in the end, he’s a savage, swordpoint rapist. The Tarquin Samuels has given us doesn’t convince as such.
The production boasts some remarkable performances, though. While Beans’s Mirabelle shines in the first act, Aaliyah Habeeb’s Lucrece takes the spotlight in the second, much of which comes directly from the poem itself. Tarquin speaks Shakespeare’s verses to his victim before the assault. So does Lucrece afterwards, bewailing her fate and wrestling with her conscience about what to do afterwards. In a bravura performance Habeeb draws on incredible reserves of passion, confusion, and especially pain, mining the earthly gold from Shakespeare’s high-flown verses even when they linger on abstractions like Opportunity and Time.
The production’s other remarkable aspect is its tableaus of the same actors in costume as characters from the Trojan War, depicted in paintings revealed in three arches – which, along with a bed and a few props, constitute the entire set. The conceit of the painting comes from the poem itself, where Lucrece contemplates the sprawling, detailing work as she waits for Collatinus’s return, seeing herself in Homer’s Hecuba. Elivia Bovenzi’s period costumes throughout the show are most impressive.
The conclusion involves some questionable choices: a climactic scene of revenge that doesn’t reflect history; a sudden, unexpected betrayal by a hitherto loyal servant without an apparent grudge; and a new character (Kate Lydic) whose identity is unclear – the other half of Lucrece’s divided self? Cassandra from the painting? Both? The presence of a being only Lucrece can see provides for some effectively haunting moments, but a clearer explanation is needed.
Though flawed and with a too-long first act, this workshop production by New York Shakespeare Exchange offers extremely impressive writing, skillful direction by Cristina Lundy, and some superb performances. It could become a popular adjunct and alternative to the usual Hamlets, Lears, and Othellos companies continue to stage all over the English-speaking world. We’re fortunate to live in an age when Double Falsehood is being recognized as a work partly by Shakespeare; where the same group behind this production is creating videos for all of Shakespeare’s sonnets (The Sonnet Project); and where a writer like Kevin Brewer feels driven to create a new drama like this Rape of Lucrece. I hadn’t read the poem since college. I was glad to be reacquainted with it, and impressed with what Brewer and New York Shakespeare Exchange have done with it.
The limited run of The Rape of Lucrece continues until Oct. 22. Get tickets online or at 917-428-0065.