Theatre Review: The Duchess of Malfi

P1040844Barney recently complimented my theatre review style, noting the detail with which I observe and recount.  Aside, I thank him for the strokes… bloggers do enjoy comments and discussion, amoung the dozens and hundreds of silent “views”.  As to the detail orientation, this is as much my personality as it is familiarity with theatrical technique from 30 some years of attending plays.  As you might note from the number of reviews that I post, we attend at times two to three plays in a month, if not a weekend.  Regarding technique, I was most impressed the “asides” in the American Shakespeare Center’s production of The Duchess of Malfi.

The aside occurs when the actor turns away from the other characters on the stage and talks to the audience.  Contemporay theatre and cinema do not use asides as directly as Elizabethian and Jacobean stage productions.  Now we use voice-over commentary, stream-of-consciousness recitations of letters and diaries, or under-one’s-breath jokes to communicate what the character is thinking, without directing these lines into the general dialogue on stage or screen.  During the English Renaissance, actors stepped or turned away and interacted with the audience.  These asides might range from direct comments to know-what-I-mean winks and gestures.

Ben Webster’s script of The Duchess of Malfi gives the players ample opportunity to interact with the audience.  Given that the American Shakespeare Center productions are performed under general lighting and in a small theatre space, there is little escaping the direct eye contact, if not a reasuring or threatening hand being placed on one’s shoulder during the performance.  And, believe me, if you doze off, or forget to turn off your cell phone, you will be noticed and duely noted sometime during the evening!

The Duchess of Malfi revolves around the widowed Duchess (Sephanie Holladay Earl).  Her twin brother, Ferdinand (Patrick Earl), forbids her to marry again.  Her elder brother, the Cardinal (Patrick Midgley), predicts that she shall love again sooner than the the sand in an hourglass can be turned.  As an aside, I would say, that her hour-glass figure, accentuated by her belted-waist, black mourning gown, parralels his prediction that her full bossom and hips will be filled with love sooner than they are turned upside down.  See how that work?!

Thus, we have the central dilemma of a young woman who is confined and condemned by her controlling brothers.  The Duchess turns to the audience to lament that a beautiful, nobal woman has few oppotunities for love because suitors would be too intemimdated to court her.  O the misery of us that are born great, We are forced to woo because none dare woo us.  And, she follows up to tell us of her plan to pursue Antonio (Andrew Goldwasser) one of her stewards, on whom her eye has fallen.  Antonio is smitten, and quite willing to engage the Duchess in love and secret marriage.  Cariola (Lexie Helgerson), the Duchess’s waiting-woman, witnesses their exchange of vows.  She remains loyal to the couple until her death… well, this is English Renaissance tragedy.  You can expect the stage to be littered with bodies by the final scene.

Antonio brings his asides, about observing the twisting and turning nobility, into the audience.  At times, he leaves the stage, peads with audience members in the front row, or even takes a seat, watching the Duchess, Ferdinand, and the Cardinal struggle.  What better way to say that Antanio is one of us in the audience, commoners watching the nobility.  Similarly, Cariola interacts with audience members sitting in the Lord’s Chairs, which are on the sides of the stage.  In one delightful exchange, when asked why she has not married, she walks over.  She gestures to one man, “Shall I marry for wisdom?”, the next man, “or wealth?”, and finally to a college student, “or beauty?”.  He raises his eye brows at the line.  She sits in his lap.  We can just say that she gets a rise out of the audience with such direct flirtation.

Two additional characters are brought into the move the plot along.  Ferdinand elicits the help of Bosola (Rick Blunt), who is a soldier who has spent several years in an enemy’s prison.  Bosola spies on the Duchess, and carries out murders at Fredinand’s command.  He talks with the audience about the nobility’s abuse of power, and his helplessness to act other than he is commanded.  He is in prison, as much in Ferdinand’s service, as he was in the army, as he was as a prisoner of war. The Cardinal has a mistress, Julia (Bridget Rue), who reveals secrets to us about what goes on behind the curtains.  Of course, she is as loyal to her lover as the Cardinal righteous to his religion.  Her power is sex.  His power is fear.

In the final scene, Ferdinand up-stages all of these asides.  As he is dying among the piles of bodies of the nobility and commoners, he slides across the stage in rage, torso cantalevered over the edge, arm reaching nearly to the first row as he bellows that all their ambitions and lust have made them “diamonds cut with our own dust”.  We are suspended on that line, as is his outstreached arm, until he collapses.

Beyond the lines of Webster’s script, the cast uses another form of an aside.  Before the show, during the intermission, and occasionally during the play they include music.  Rather than period tunes, they draw up our popular culture of music.  In one poingent interlude, a single resinating guitar & troubador starts with Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire”:

Hey little girl is your daddy home
Did he go away and leave you all alone
I got a bad desire
I’m on fire

A second voice interjects with the Police’s “Every Breath You Take”:

Every breath you take
Every move you make
Every bond you break
Every step you take
I’ll be watching you

The singers alternate verses, slowly overlapping, until they are singing both songs at the same time.  “I’m on fire, I’ll be watching you”.  Don’t nod off or let your cell phone interrupt this peformance, lest you miss an aside.


About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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2 Responses to Theatre Review: The Duchess of Malfi

  1. Chet says:

    Wow– the show sounds stunning. I’ve always wanted to see a production of “The Duchess,” but it is rarely done, and no chance of seeing it here, haha.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      I doubt it would play Vegas :). We thought the script was had as many good lines as some Shakespeare tragedies. However, because Ben Webster came after Shakespeare and wrote most of his plays in collaboration with other playwrights (Duchess is one of two that is attributed to him alone), his works are not likely to get much stage time these days. The ASC produces many “secondary” plays of the time period that they emphasize to allow audiences to see Shakespeare in the larger theatre scene of the time. We look forward to getting back to seeing “Love’s Labor Lost” with you in a couple of weeks.

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