The Rape of Lucrece

Adapted from Shakespeare by Kevin Brewer; Directed by Cristina Lundy
Produced by New York Shakespeare Exchange

Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 10.22.16
Teatro LATEA at The Clemente, 107 Suffolk Street

by Elizabeth Kipp-Giusti on 10.16.16

RapeofLucreceLeighton Samuels and Aaliyah Habeeb in The Rape of Lucrece. Photo by Martin Harris.

BOTTOM LINE: In this world premiere adaptation of the epic poem by William Shakespeare, New York Shakespeare Exchange has created a thoughtful meditation on how little our society has grown in its treatment of women.

It is right there in the title. With striking modern parallels, New York Shakespeare Exchange’s production of The Rape of Lucrece unabashedly exposes the reality of sexual violence and abuses of power, told through an ancient Roman narrative. Set in pre-Republic Rome where an abusive king still rules the land, the story is both historical and frighteningly contemporary. At the play’s center is Lucrece (Aaliyah Habeeb), married to an aristocratic cousin of the king, who is raped by Sextus Tarquinius (Leighton Samuels), the king’s son. Her subsequent suicide leads to a revolt against King Tarquin, which, according to Livy’s history (on which Shakespeare based his poem), led to the establishment of the Roman Republic in 509 BC. This story not only dramatizes a gross act of entitlement, sexism, and sexual dominance, but the main character’s subsequent suicide and ultimate revenge lay bare the complicated aftermaths of such violent acts.

The cast of The Rape of Lucrece is uniformly talented, featuring a number of young actors who grapple with the emotional complexity of the show with exceptional maturity. Gabby Beans, who portrays Lucrece’s deeply loyal maid and friend Mirabelle, is focused and arresting, unflinchingly intelligent and stern in the face of powerful men. Her foil, Caius (Erik Olson), the prince’s servant, is the charmingly naïve comic relief. As Caius’ master, Prince Sextus, Samuels moves with a kind of lugubrious confidence, which, though highly naturalistic, is sometimes a bit lacking in energy. As such, he comes across with a kind of smarmy hipness that is convincingly unappealing but wears thin. In contrast, Aaliyah Habeeb’s tirelessly virtuous Lucrece is charming and sweet, as she builds to the show's devastating climax.

Director Cristina Lundy has supported the actors to make the most of the play’s uneven lines, smartly adapted by Kevin Brewer with admirable skill. Unfortunately, it is very apparent upon hearing certain tinny slant rhymes why The Rape of Lucrece is not one of Shakespeare’s better-known works. Despite this, Brewer and Lundy should be applauded for their focused work in developing a complex humanity in Lucrece that is notably absent in the poem itself. By highlighting her friendship with Mirabelle, based in mutual respect, and by noting that Lucrece’s tragedy is built more on social constructions than her own internalized sense of shame, they have created a woman with agency, nuance, and power.

The script is not without its awkward moments, however, particularly in the beginning of the show, which features an achingly long scene that seems to be almost directly lifted from The Taming of the Shrew. With bawdy and heavy-handed sexual humor, we see a band of soldiers judge their wives and joke about their own genitalia. It simply feels out of synch with the rest of the show and does not serve to further the story. The show's final scene is a moment of bloody vengeance, which I won’t spoil except to say that it is completely the work of Brewer’s imagination, as Shakespeare’s poem ends with Lucrece’s death. This also poses complicated questions about the nature of revenge and how we want to understand justice.

Overall, The Rape of Lucrece is a very strong production featuring beautifully designed costumes by Elivia Bovenzi, atmospheric sound design by Jack Cummins, and thoughtful staging by Lundy. A recurring presentation of six stone sculptures is brilliant and poignantly done, and all the show’s characters move with purpose. Lundy has made the respectful choice to cloak Lucrece’s rape in complete darkness, which heightens the pure violence of the act but keeps the moment from being titillating or, worse, appealing. The audience cringes in the moment, fully articulated with sounds, but some small gift of privacy is still observed. This choice also serves to highlight that, tragically, rape and sexual assault are a reality of our own world. Though it is clear that this is simply one experience of rape, the resonances are obvious. It is not only the perpetrator, in this case Sextus, who bears the blame for the rape. The failures of the justice system and a society that does not value the stories of survivors are equally guilty.

(The Rape of Lucrece plays at Teatro LATEA at The Clemente, 107 Suffolk Street, through October 22, 2016. The running time is two hours and ten minutes with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays at 2 and 7:30. Tickets are $20 and are available at or by calling 917-428-0065.)

The Rape of Lucrece is adapted by Kevin Brewer, based on the poem by William Shakespeare. Directed by Cristina Lundy. Produced by Charles Graytok. Scenic Design by Joseph Napolitano. Costume Design by Elivia Bovenzi. Lighting Design by Jane Chan. Sound Design by Jack Cummins. Dramaturg is Jessica Cauttero. Assistant Director is Jeremy Eoff. Violence/Intimacy Coordinator is Alicia Rodia. Production Stage Manager is Bryan Taylor Russell.

The cast is Gabby Beans, Pat Dwyer, Brandon Garegnani, Aaliyah Habeeb, Kate Lydic, Erik Olson, Joel Oramas, Leighton Samuels, and Shawn Williams.