BACK STAGE WEST
August 06, 1998
at Theatre of NOTE
In adapting John Webster's bitter 1613 tragedy The Duchess of Malfi for a 1946 Broadway production, Bertolt Brecht and W.H. Auden showed remarkable shrewdness and audacity--not primarily as poets, as one might expect, but as dramatists. As demonstrated in this searing and stark world premiere production under director Denise Gillman (the adaptation was scrapped before previews and has never been staged till now), Brecht and Auden saw clear-mindedly into the black, vengeful heart of this famously bloody Jacobean drama and found ways to tighten and sharpen it for 20th-century audiences more likely to be struck by emotional than actual violence (but of course craving a fair helping of both).
The triumph of Gillman, her designers, and her committed acting ensemble is that their Duchess nearly perfectly finds the intersection of Elizabethan and Brechtian theatre. As we watch the actors in their doublets and vestments declaiming and parrying in discursive verse (for the most part drastically edited but lifted from the original Webster) on a bare in-the-round stage under uncolored lights, we are put in mind of another mythic L.A. premiere, that of Brecht's Galileo at the Coronet Theatre, which was said to have alienated 1940s audiences with its apparently single-minded emphasis on speaking the speech and making its point.
Theatre audiences have since become accustomed to theatre that departs from kitchen-sink naturalism, usually by breaking the fourth wall with a wink and making performances big or wild. This Duchess reminds us of a different, more serious-minded sort of anti-naturalist epic theatre, in which equal emphasis is placed on poetic text and theatrical gesture.
There are a few blips in Gillman's casting, but otherwise this is a striking and efficient ensemble, whose entrances and exits are to and from stationary marks facing the theatre's side walls. David Conner makes a sharp and stiff-backed Cardinal, Judith Ann Levitt a strong and un-cutesy lady-in-waiting, and both Anthony Byrnes and Sarah Phemister are unfussily various in their many roles. As the calculating spy Bosola, Kiff Scholl is perfectly condescending and conspiratorial, and Peter Konerko is a blankly tender and nervous Antonio (in this adaptation a bit of a passive milquetoast).
In the fraternal lead roles of the Duke and the titular Duchess, Andre Marrero and Trace Turville make a strikingly contrasting couple (that's as much as I'll give away about the central interpretative innovation of this adaptation). Turville especially has a finely honed instrument, with a flawless sense of tempo and dynamics, making the Duchess both suitably self-involved and heartbreakingly noble, both raw and refined. Marrero has a tougher job: Brecht/Auden's Duke has become a curiously pyschologized villain, with a warmongering backdrop to explain his bloodlust and another troubling subtext to explain his rage over his sister's unsanctioned marriage. But Marrero hasn't unlocked the character onstage yet; he seethes then ruptures in nearly every scene without finding a larger arc for the Duke's revenge.
Philip Mooers' lighting covers a lot of ground within the constraints imposed by Gillman's Brechtian stagecraft, while Douglas Ridgeway's props and Gina Davidson's costumes are specific and serviceable. If these last sound like faint praises, they're not: This is a production in which, happily, every well-selected element services the text, and the text is worthy of such attention and care.
"The Duchess of Malfi," presented by Theatre of NOTE and the Pilgrimage Theatre at Theatre of NOTE, 1517 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. July 31-Sept. 5. (213) 856-8611.