Jobsite Theater's Bloody Poetry offers a strange equation. Two of England's greatest poets, plus the author of Frankenstein, adultery, a ghost, kinky sex, a near-drowning, drunkenness and multiple suicides somehow all add up to a colossal bore.
It's hard to decipher playwright Howard Brenton's intentions in this account, first produced in 1985, of the relationship between Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. If he merely meant to demystify two artistic geniuses, he succeeds very early on in the proceedings. The main characters here, Byron especially, are so thoroughly repellent that's it's a chore for the audience to spend two hours with them.
But if Brenton intended to offer some insight into Byron and Shelley, he fails entirely. The audience can't help but wonder how these two gross louts, who almost gleefully use and abuse the people around them, could have created some of the most loving and lovely poetry ever written. But Brenton doesn't even hint at an explanation.
In any case, it's hard to give his views much credibility. Brenton has his characters, in 1816, discussing Freudian theories 60 years before Freud came up with them. They argue communism before the man who coined the term was born
The cast in this production tries hard (often much too hard) to eke some earnestness out of the script. David M. Jenkins and Chris Holcom both give the kind of performances that engendered the phrase "chewing the scenery." They're both intense, and sometimes quite entertaining to watch, but they seem as if they're overreaching because Brenton has provided them with such inconsistently drawn characters.
Jason Vaughan Evans as Polidori, a sort of protopaparazzo, is so relentlessly over-the-top that it seems that he's there for comic relief, but there are no laughs in his lines.
The most consistently appealing performances come from Kari Keller as Claire Claremont, the shared mistress of the poets ("I lifted my skirts for the good of English poetry," she says) and Dena Cousins as Mary Shelley. They both inject some much-needed calm and subtlety into this bombastic production. Summer Bohnenkamp-Jenkins starts off with a weird Gollum-like performance as Percy Shelley's abandoned first wife, but then returns with an effective turn as her ghost.
Given the clash of acting styles, it's possible that director Katrina Stevenson (who also designed the exquisite costumes) never quite got a handle on the play's intent. But she can hardly be blamed for that. This play is a confused and confusing mess, with some scattered moments of value, and the production is its equal.