“THE RAPE OF LUCRECE”: Shakespeare’s Ancient Story Gets a Modern (and Timely) Reworking on the New York City Stage
The newest creation from New York Shakespeare Exchange (NYSX) Company is a full-length production of the epic poem The Rape of Lucrece. Published in 1594, the powerful piece is one of the The Bard’s earliest works. It is set in 509 B.C. Rome, just before the fall of that city-state’s monarchy. The Rape of Lucrece is rarely adapted for an audience in contemporary theater. Why? It may be due to the challenges of creating an entire multi-character theater piece from a narrative poem. Of course, there’s also the heavy subject matter, which is unmistakable: The title gives that away. History has proved that Shakespeare’s popular works– both the messages behind them as well as the audiences’ reactions to them– have transcended the test of time through the centuries. The way his characters spoke, in all their quaint extravagance, may be different from the way we converse in 2016. However, those characters’ witty and sarcastic observations on their fellow humans and on society in general have shown that humanity really hasn’t changed much throughout time– sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Shakespeare’s body of work has also shown that our core attitudes and mores have indeed evolved throughout time… but sadly, not as fast as they should when it comes to some issues. The Rape of Lucrece, the poem, is about the sexual assault of its title character and its effects on both the victim and on society at large. As we enter 2017, that theme couldn’t be more timely– especially given recent political events in America.
Directed by Cristina Lundy, this production of The Rape of Lucrece was adapted for the stage by playwright Kevin Brewer, and uses largely original dialogue. It has been expanded beyond its original source with new characters, a generous helping of modern sensibility, and an innovative new structure which allows a larger setting for the story. The central synopsis, based on historical fact, has stayed the the same. In the town of Ardea, we meet Sextus (Leighton Samuels), the seemingly charming prince and soldier who is preparing for a battle against a renegade tribe south of Rome. Sextus gets a visit from his four of his fellow soldiers/friends, one of whom is also his cousin, the just-married Lord Collatinus (Shawn Williams). As the men indulge in wine and engage in “boys will be boys”-style talk about their favorite subjects (politics, sex, and religion… What else is there?), Collatinus waxes poetic about his new wife: the lovely, loyal, and oh-so-chaste Lady Lucrece. Lucrece also happens to be the daughter of Lucrecius (Pat Dwyer), a Senator. Eventually, the audience does meet the titular Lucrece (Aaliyah Habeeb). Through her interactions with her handmaiden Mirabelle (Gabby Beans), we see not only her physical beauty but also learn of her gentle, gracious nature and her dedication to her husband. It’s not just the audience who becomes smitten with our Lucrece, however. The very well-built (and very single) Prince Sextus soon develops carnal feelings for the wife of his friend/fellow soldier/cousin. In Shakespeare’s own words, the prince becomes “inflamed with Lucrece’ beauty”.
There’s a lot of smartly bawdy humor in the play’s first act, and it comes largely from the over-the-top buffoonery of Sextus’ young servant Caius (a lovable Erik Olson) and the equally outrageous dialogue by Sextus’ full-time socialite cousin Brutus (a comically deft Brandon Garegnani). The comedy, full of puns and double entendres, both honors and parodies Shakespeare-style language with some broad anachronistic indulgences. The humor and levity in Act 1, however, slowly give way to the far more serious second half, when Sextus visits Lucrece while Collatinus and the other men are away in Rome. Through soliloquy (with lines taken from the original poem as well as some new Shakespeare-inspired ones), Sextus evokes Hamlet, another Shakespearean prince, as he proclaims himself as a tortured soul: tortured by desire, and foreseeing any of his impending actions to be the inability to repress those desires. Needless to say, Sextus ultimately gives in to his dark side. In a hauntingly superb display of theater, Aaliyah Habeeb chillingly conveys the emotional aftermath of her character’s violation– including but not limited to Lucrece’s guilt, shame, feeling of helplessness, anger, and desperation. Astonishingly, although her dialogue is largely taken from the original play, her post-trauma feelings prove to be virtually identical to those of any victim of sexual assault, whether in 1594 or 2016. As a clever creative touch, Lucrece communicates her internal dialogue with the oracle Cassandra (played in physical form by Kate Lydic), who offers some enlightened insight. Nevertheless, Lucrece sees only one self-sacrificial way to escape her emotional torture. That act, according to history, propelled a full-scale revolt against the Roman royal family and the establishment of the Roman republic. This reworking of The Rape of Lucrece offers an additional form of justice, which is not only surprising and shocking but also, shall we say, more “personal”…
The director and cast of The Rape of Lucrece have great respect for their source material as well as the serious (and, as said before, timeless) subject matter. Both the comedy in the beginning and the tragedy in the second half are both performed with equal energy and talent by the youthful cast. The play is also bolstered by many creative directorial and artistic touches, such as the “living” art pieces which play a role of their own. This production is proof that Shakespeare, in all his complex glory, is alive and well in New York City. And, he hasn’t lost his ability to both entertain and provoke us.
The Rape of Lucrece runs through October 22nd at Teatro Latea at The Clemente, 107 Suffolk Street, NYC. The play contains nudity and scenes of sexual violence. Parental discretion is advised. Tickets and more information are available at www.ShakespeareExchange.org.