The hit man’s tragedy
John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1614) makes Macbeth seem like a feel-good romp. Bad things happen to good people. Bad things happen to bad people. Everybody dies. (Everybody you care about.) The moral of the play: Life sucks.
The plot is convoluted and dependent on cultural codes that don’t run on our current mental software. Essentially, the recently widowed (and still young) Duchess of Malfi (Elisabeth Ahrens) secretly marries Antonio Bologna (a man below her station played by Dolph Paulsen). The happy couple has kids and keep that a secret too. The Duchess’ unhappy brothers (David Yearta as the Machiavellian Cardinal and DeMario McGrew as the incestuously inclined Ferdinand) find out about the kids but not the marriage. At first, they think the Duchess has just been screwing around. When they do find out about the secret marriage, they decide to kill her anyway because hubby is low-class. But they torture her first—psychologically. It’s not quite as bad as, say, Hostel, but it’s pretty bad. After that, the play takes a surprising turn—but more on that later.
All of this is presented in dense, deeply-deep Elizabethan language—self-consciously derivative of Shakespeare, but not quite as good. The effect is like Nabokov going back in time and doing a Bard impersonation. (Except he’d probably do a better job than Webster.) It’s as mannered and artificial as a Japanese “Noh” drama.
Anybody staging this stuff in the present is left with two choices:
A) Do an archaeological recreation of the text-as-artifact. Present this stuff exactly as they’d do it back in the day with no apologies or explanations.
B) Frame the artificiality in a larger artificiality. Say, an assortment of post-modern foofaraw.
As you’ve probably guessed, option (B) is what the Asolo Conservatory did in their recent production directed by Susannah Gellert. The actors are in modern dress. The action takes place in what looks like a crappy motel room with a pull out bed, a church-lady-type electric organ, two video monitors and a microphone on a stand. Actors interview each other with a vidcam and you see it on the monitors. Others take turns banging the organ and doing karaoke on the mike. Above it all, a sign proclaims: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS EVIL. I’ll take the Conservatory’s word for it, though Webster’s play seems to offer evidence to the contrary.
During intermission, I heard a few audience members whining, “I couldn’t understand what was happening with the actors in modern dress in that crappy motel room.” Bull. I found that the lack of a literal set forced me to pay more attention to the words. Hey, we’re in a castle now. If you say so, I’ll imagine it. But first, I have to hear you. The lack of costumes and scenery cues forced me to really listen—so I listened and I figured most of it out. Even so, there were lots of times I didn’t know what the hell was going on.
My problem with the production isn’t its lack of period cues or the post-modern gimcrackery as such. (I usually like gimcrackery.) But the structure built around the play’s original structure doesn’t add up to anything – CSI: Malfi, a video blog, a murderous game show, whatever. It isn’t a structure. The bits of business are random. (Some are rip-offs, including one dead steal from Kill Bill and another bit swiped from Blue Velvet.) What should be a frame to see through often turns into an opaque window. That’s my problem. But so what?
I figure the logic behind it all is more pedagogical than dramaturgical. If this had been a typical Asolo mainstage production intended to keep an audience happy, some contemporary playwright would’ve whacked about a third of Webster’s copyright-free original material and made the crooked roads run straight. As this was a Conservatory production intended for teaching purposes, you get all of it—clocking in at 80 minutes in the first act and an hour in the second. Needless to say the students get a workout. And some audience members got worn out.
If you’ve got the stamina to hang in there, it really picks up in the second act. (Trust me.) The Duchess is killed very quickly. (That “I was five and he was six” riff lifted from Kill Bill had me expecting her to take revenge with a samurai sword, but it was not to be.) Bosola (Jason Peck) the killer-for-hire in the red bandana and Def Leppard t-shirt, suddenly gets second thoughts—and it’s like Iago going “What was I thinking?” (At this point, I literally stop slouching, sit up and take notice.) The stone killer becomes a human being—and, effectively, the hero of the play.
Without warning, The Duchess of Malfi turns into The Hit Man’s Tragedy—and from here on it gets interesting, if damn depressing. (Maybe it’s my imagination, but Webster’s writing seems to really get better—as if he got his hands on some really good coffee.) Bosola concludes the play by killing the two swinish brothers who paid him to set their sister up. Bosola dies too, of course. Before the curtain comes down, Antonio dies, the Duchess dies, the kids, the rotten, scheming brothers and various pretty women who get in their way. It all ends badly. But it’s great theater.
Inside the post-modern frame, the acting is consistently good and true to the original characters. The direction veers from dead brilliant to why-the-hell-did-she-do-that? The ride ain’t always smooth. But it’s definitely worth the ride.
Does everything work? No. This is an experimental production and I wouldn’t expect it too. Not all the experiments work, but I applaud the mad scientist gutsiness behind it all. A standard-issue costume drama would have been the easy choice. Gellert’s post-mod production of Malfi is the road less taken. She takes risks; she forces you to be involved; she makes you question the assumptions you carry inside your skull when you enter the theater.
It’s thought provoking theater at its best.
'The Duchess of Malfi'
Short version: What’s it all about, Malfi?
Through March 16
FSU/Asolo Conservatory production
Cook Theatre, FSU Center for the Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota