BY TAMAR NEUMANN: After I saw The Classical Actors Ensemble’s production of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi all my memories of my Renaissance English Literature class came crashing back. I went home, dusted off my copy of the play, and started flipping through my notes about the tragic themes present in this story. I read about love and about the physical being chosen over the spiritual. I read about deceit and the connections between this play and Othello. Mostly importantly I read about Webster’s desire to portray a woman different than others—a woman of power and a woman who is killed because of her power. All of those notes helped me to better understand this story so truthfully performed by The Classical Actors Ensemble. But you don’t need those notes in order to appreciate the power of this play.
The Duchess of Malfi would not achieve its greatness without the somber tones of tragedy that pervade every line of the play. This production, directed by Joseph Papke, contrasts the heavy with the light. The beginning is sweet and happy even with the sour notes of the Duke (Daniel Joeck), The Cardinal (Neal Beckman), and Bosola (Michael Ooms). The Duchess (Hannah Steblay) is allowed the rare freedom of a man—she runs her court while her brothers are away and she gets to fall in love, woo her man, and marry him. Of course it’s too perfect, and the audience knows that because we have come to see a tragedy. Steblay’s sweet excitement at getting married only makes her death all that much harder to bear. The sweet youth of The Duchess quickly disappears and Steblay deftly portrays strength in the face of The Duchess’ brothers, personal loss, and her own death. By the time we reach the end of the play, Steblay has left all girlishness behind and she has become a woman full of hidden resolve. Her transformation throughout the play keeps the character of The Duchess interesting, and helps remind the audiences of what makes this play so lasting—the portrayal of a strong woman who cannot escape the world in which she lives.
Without the rest of the cast, Steblay’s performance would mean little. For every martyr there must be a villain and The Duchess of Malfi has two and a half. Her brothers are determined to ensure that she will never marry again, and when she does marry they are determined to ensure she is punished. Both Joeck and Beckman work well together; they act as yin and yang. Joeck’s Duke is irrational and controlled by his emotions. Beckman’s Cardinal is never ruffled and always creepy. In Beckman’s first scene with Julia (Nicole Joy Frethem) the break between his perpetual calm and his desire to be sexually dominant is both uncomfortable and brilliant. It provides his character with an under layer of evil that is necessary to this story. While The Duke seems to be calling the shots, it is clear The Cardinal is truly behind all of the tragedies in this play.
Perhaps the only downside to this cast is the almost lackluster performances of Ooms and Lucas Gerstner (as Antonio). While both actors do an admirable job of fulfilling their parts, that’s about as far as they go. Ooms’ character, Bosola, has some difficult moral quandaries that are not carefully examined enough. Why does Bosola continue to follow The Duke’s and The Cardinal’s orders? This question, while mostly answered in the text, could have been further explored in this production and by Ooms. What makes Bosola tic? With so few stage notes in a play like this, it is up to the actor and director to make these choices. In this case, Bosola remained too bland for me.
There were many decisions for Papke to make in this production. He chose to set it in a more modern time period with guns and modernized costumes. I always enjoy seeing the contrasts a modern setting brings out in a classical play. In this piece it did not make much of a difference, but it certainly did not hurt the production either. There were a number of movement scenes, implied by the text and flushed out by Papke, that helped to enrich the theatricality of the play. And, as at all Classical Actors Ensemble productions, there was music between act breaks to liven the mood. Many of the songs were a nice pairing to the scene before, which, I am assuming, was intentionally done. The set, being very simple, kept the focus on the actors, but it also made the space versatile for various scenes. The costumes, by Kiley Cermak, were also simple, but rich with symbolism as shades of purple were woven throughout different pieces and scenes to unify or to show discord between characters. It was nicely done and pleasantly subtle.
This play with not uplift you. It’s not meant to be uplifting. But it will do what great plays do—make you think and talk to your friends about love and loss and tragedy. And, just maybe, it will make you understand why a play like The Duchess of Malfi is still being performed hundreds of years after its first production.
NOTE: The Classical Actors Ensemble is currently performing The Duchess of Malfi and Twelfe Night in repertory. These two plays are perfectly paired as they both feature strong women who seek after unconventional love and who are not afraid to make their own decisions. While I did not have the pleasure of seeing Twelfe Night I have no qualms recommending it as a worthy piece of theatre. The strong production of The Duchess of Malfi leaves me little doubt that Twelfe Night will be as equally strong and entirely more fun than watching everyone die.
The Duchess of Malfi, written by John Webster. October 31-November 23, performed by Classical Actors Ensemble at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage, 711 W. Franklin Ave., Minneapolis. Tickets: $15-$30; purchase tickets at www.classicalactorsensemble.org