While “off Broadway” is often the destination for the worst sort of stage-direction anarcho-anachronism, with Othello in spaceships and all-lesbian versions of Macbeth, it may surprise the non-New Yorker to learn that it is often the place to discover classic drama played absolutely straight (in all senses) and flawlessly acted.
Such was the case recently with a production of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, presented by the Kings County Shakespeare Company at Brooklyn’s St. Francis College. The play, first staged in 1614 at the Blackfriars and Globe theaters, has since become the most-performed non-Shakespearean tragedy in the English language. Based on a true story about an Italian duchess who suffered a cruel fate at the hands of her two brothers, Ferdinand and “the Cardinal,” for secretly marrying beneath her station, the drama contains at its core a triangular relationship between the Duchess, her steward-husband Antonio, and Ferdinand, who is captive to an incestuous passion for her.
The Duchess is a “right noble” woman, whose “discourse,” Antonio claims, “is so full of rapture / You only will begin then to be sorry / When she doth end her speech,” and her “days are practiced in such noble virtue / That sure her nights, nay more, her very sleeps, / Are more in heaven than other ladies’ shrifts.”
In the Kings County Shakespeare Company’s production, the role of the Duchess is played by Renee Bucciarelli, a “right noble” woman herself, who, had she lived in the age of the madrigal, would certainly have inspired the full flowering of that art. The Duchess of Malfi is one of the greatest (and, likely, the earliest) of the great romantic heroines of English drama—impulsive, impatient of social proprieties, warmly elegant, and profoundly feminine—and this is an actress who realizes all of these attributes to perfection.
The other star is Juilliard graduate Matt D’Amico as Bosola, the henchman of the brothers, who covet their sister’s inheritance. D’Amico pulls off the neat trick of being simultaneously slimy and sympathetic. Once he has been the undoing of the Duchess, her husband, and her children, he expresses heartfelt remorse for his base deeds. Bosola is both part of the action and outside it, villain and avenger—and even impresario, since he opens four, and closes five, scenes in the play. From being the brothers’ hired spy and executioner throughout most of the story, he becomes, in its waning moments, the avenger of the sister’s wrongs.
A veteran of Shakespearean drama, Jon Fordham is the cold, heartless Cardinal, while Ferdinand is played by Andrew Oswald. The latter’s rage throughout is the fire to Fordham’s ice.
More so than that of other Jacobean dramatists, Webster’s art seems continually to shift perspective, which can make the artistic unity of his plays difficult to define.
One who had no trouble defining Webster was Bernard Shaw, who contemptuously dismissed him as “Tussaud laureate.” He saw the playwright as an exploiter of sensational violence who pandered to his audience’s basest voyeuristic instincts. In the film Shakespeare in Love, John Webster is the gruesome little boy who finds the Bard’s plays not sufficiently bloodthirsty.
Indeed, I have it on good authority that some modern stagings have been quite colorful, with blood gushing everywhere and chained women with bared breasts. In this production by Jemma Alix Levy, only the stage is bare, with hardly a piece of furniture set down among the players.
However, placing madness and murder at center stage (the play concludes with a stage-clogging, five-corpse pile-up) should not give offense. Webster’s works are vital, at times excessively so. His world is inhabited by people driven, like animals, only by their instincts. In the case of Ferdinand, the twin brother of the Duchess of Malfi, Webster collapses the divide between human and animal when Ferdinand’s wolfish instincts transform him outright into a lycanthropos (a “wolfman”).
Webster admitted that The Duchess presents “a gloomy world,” and its gloom emanates from Italy, a convenient punching bag for many English playwrights, who portray Italy as a sink of iniquity, depravity, and corruption, both religious and sexual. It is not the Italy of their own 17th century, baroque and Spanish-dominated, that they describe but the Italy of the 15th century. In the end, though, Italy and Italians stand less for a real country and her people than for a climate of feeling and action.
Soon after my enjoyable experience of theater in Brooklyn, I ventured back into Manhattan for what might be termed a “subversive” production of Strindberg’s Miss Julie. New York Times theater critic John Rockwell has assured us that “some ‘subversive’ productions are brilliantly unforgettable, like [Robert] Wilson’s account of ‘A Dream Play’ three years ago at the Brooklyn Academy.” (Several years ago, I found Wilson’s “subversion” of Lohengrin on the Metropolitan Opera stage “unforgettable” for the way in which he had the lead singers refrain from even the slightest interaction with one another.)
According to Rockwell, “Mr. Wilson revealed facets of Strindberg that Strindberg could never envisage, making for a compelling dialogue across time.”
Well, in this production in a tiny theater converted from an office space near Times Square, facets were revealed, but not those of Strindberg. They were, rather, the exposed breasts of Cleveland, Ohio’s own Miss Julie Saad, acting in the title role. Why Miss Julie’s “Miss Julie” had to appear topless, I cannot imagine, but, then, neither could I imagine what predisposed the company founded by this sylph-like redhead, the inaptly named “Blush Productions,” to set this 19th-century Swedish play, about the master-servant divide and the clash of the sexes, in New York City on the Fourth of July with the cast and audience anticipating the approach, not of Miss Julie’s aristocrat father, but of her Hollywood-director dad. Throw in a reference to a pet rabbit needing an abortion, and you have 90 minutes of incessant torture.
Which is too bad, because Strindberg is a towering figure in world drama. He was alternately a Darwinist, Rousseauist, Socialist, Nietzschean, and Christian mystic; but, whatever his transformations, at the core was an immense personality: sensitive, irreconcilable, occasionally self-torturing and melancholy. Miss Julie contains a remarkable theoretical introduction, in which Strindberg explains his new naturalistic form of the drama: The consistent development of character should be eliminated, because moderns are complicated and vacillating and should be presented as such on stage. Dialogue should be natural and interrupted, as in reality, by sudden thoughts and associations.
The plays should also be short, and Miss Julie has a concentrated plot: On a midsummer eve, the young noblewoman Julie is drawn into a love affair with her servant Jean, played here by Bryen Luethy, a junior actor who, unfortunately, gets Strindberg as wrong as does his costar.
Miss Julie falls under his power (at least, that is what happens on those occasions when there is a powerful actor opposite her) and can atone for her shame only through suicide.
The action of the play is continuous. Strindberg was developing a theory that the division of the play into acts with the necessary fall of the curtain shattered the illusion. He even complained that intermissions were only an excuse for the bars to make money.
On this night, I dearly wished that the Common Basis Theater had a bar. Nonetheless, I stuck out to the bitter end this supremely irritating rendition of a classic play, starring and produced by a native of the Buckeye State, a territory of the heartland that had transgressed even more egregiously against New Yorkers and other decadent Northeasterners by stupidly shutting down our power grid. As such, I emerged into the bracing night air to regain my sanity.
Up to a point. Walking the route back to my apartment, I passed the headquarters of Fox TV, whose news “crawl” around the building reported that, earlier that day, “Baddies” (the actual word) had done something “bad” to the occupying power in Iraq and that George W. Bush had manfully asserted in an address in Washington state that “I will do my utmost to protect the salmon of the Pacific Northwest”—no doubt the linchpin of his “No Coho Left Behind” policy.
Webster, thou shouldst be writing at this hour. You could skewer their pretensions and their hypocrisy in Act I and, by final curtain, run all of them through with a sword.
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