Sparks flew as New York Shakespeare Exchange’s production breathed new life into Shakespeare’s classic narrative poem “The Rape of Lucrece” at the Teatro LATEA at The Clemente. The words of the Bard are so seamlessly intertwined with clever new dialogue that the two were hardly distinguishable. The tragic tale of Lucrece, a Roman woman who was sexually assaulted, seems not only natural but also all too familiar.
Actress Aaliyah Habeeb gave a masterfully nuanced portrayal of the kind and generous Lucrece, whose virtue is betrayed by her adoring husband’s close friend Prince Sextus Tarquinius. Habeeb handles Lucrece’s transformation from a caring, sharp-witted housewife into a woman wracked with hatred and guilt following her rape with an understanding and depth that truly makes the story come alive. Habeeb’s interpretation of the role is powered by unaffected emotion which only becomes clearer as the drama progresses. Her talent particularly shines in the second act in which she delivers a heart-wrenching monologue shrouded in darkness following the rape scene.
The rest of the cast gives equally powerful performances which perfectly complements Habeeb’s. Actor Leighton Samuels portrays Sextus Tarquinius unapologetically, beginning with all of the “proper etiquette” that comes with his rank and then slowly falling into a blind spiral of force and lust as he continues yearning for Lucrece. His interpretation, human as it is, still contains all the subtle hints of male arrogance and entitlement, leaving the viewer also feeling wronged as Sextus threatens Lucrece with murder and eternal dishonor should she refuse his advances.
The overall structure of the piece perfectly befits many Shakespearean tragedies, with comedic moments peppering the expositional later scenes. Brandon Garegnani, in the role of Brutus, delivered double entendres with timing and wit. Erik Olson, in the role of Caius — Sextus’ well-meaning yet often laughably naive servant — also delivered perfect punchlines. The deadpan humor of Lucrece’s servant Mirabelle (Gabby Beans), was a welcome interlude between moments of tension.
However, as dramaturg Jessica Cauttero pointed out in her program note, the takeaway message of the play was that although this is a rape story, it is not the only rape story; “Not the truth, but a truth.”
Cauttero argues that although Lucrece commits suicide in wake of her rape, this should not be misconstrued as the only possible outcome. In the play, there are various different views on how to deal with Sextus’ crime and two very different courses of action taken. In its own manner of showing so, the story ends with more than just seeing Sextus brought to justice.
In dealing with Lucrece’s death, “The Rape of Lucrece” beseeches all who see it to remember the importance of justice but also to remember the importance of supporting the victims of sexual violence, for theirs are voices that need to be heard most of all.
“The Rape of Lucrece” will be playing at the Clemente at 107 Suffolk St until Oct. 22.
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