The little-known Jacobean tragedy "The Duchess of Malfi" was penned in the early 17th century by English playwright John Webster, a master of macabre in his own right. It was performed at the Globe and has remained a highly respected and deeply analyzed text in theatrical realms (particularly higher education). But it's not often that it's actually performed -- or even referenced in popular culture (though Webster's works notably inspired T.S. Eliot's poem "Whispers of Immortality.")
Under the artistic direction of Virgina Monte, WallByrd Theatre Company -- one of the newest ensemble groups in town -- has taken on an ambitious task in performing Webster's mammoth five-act work. The script is lengthy, and the language is dense (the play is part of the era of Jacobean drama, which immediately followed Shakespeare and the Elizabethan era). The plot centers on a recently widowed duchess in Amalfi, Italy, who secretly remarries against the wishes of her two brothers, eliciting their disapproval and eventual revenge. In traditional Webster fashion, it's a dark, ghostly tale -- perfect for this time of year.
Monte's vision for "The Duchess of Malfi" isn't set in coastal Italy, however. It's set in the South during the Civil War, making the duchess a Southern Belle rather than a Southern Italian. This bold choice -- while admirable and political considering current events and the themes of the play -- does compound the already winding plot. Frequent European and 17th-century cultural references throughout the show were not changed accordingly, which caused head scratching and blank looks in the crowd from those who weren't familiar with the plot. (The company included an act-by-act synopsis in the playbill, which was helpful but provided spoilers throughout the show.)
The cast of 13 is filled with varying levels of skill, training and talent. Avid local theatregoers will recognize Emily Putnam, who plays the duchess, from her recent roles in "Rainbow Fish: the Musical" at the Fringe in September and Pittsford Musicals' production of "Next to Normal" in June. Putnam is a true triple threat, versatile in her appearance, and formally trained enough to master almost any character she plays. The amount of lines in this production, coupled with heightened emotion, a Southern accent, and several hoop skirts that may have their own zip codes made Putnam's contributions to the show very impressive indeed. The only downfall was her onstage chemistry with Vincenzo McNeill, who played the duchess's secret husband, Antonio Bologna. The relationship is clearly a catalyst in the play, but it was hard to decipher whether the two married for love or convenience (and perhaps that was how the director chose to advise).
Other standout members of the cast included Carl Del Buono (Castruccio/Mad Man/Soldier), who delivered reactions and authenticity to each of his roles; Alec Powell (Ferdinand), who was especially delightful to watch after his character's psychological decline; Jaimi Miller (Cariola), whose bond to the duchess creates one of the strongest emotional moments in the play; Matthew Moore (Cardinal), who plays a vicious character and has a solid grasp of the language; and Jessamyn Slon (Julia/Mad Woman), who should have been given more opportunities to sing in the show.
There were some difficulties with the heaviness of the language and the inconsistent accents that most of the cast struggled to maintain. James Lockhart, who played the demanding role of Daniel de Bosola, had great fervor and energy onstage, but was often impeded by the language when he spoke too quickly.
The switch to Southern culture did make way for aesthetically stunning costumes by the director's mother, Linda Monte (though there were a few gasps whenever the silken hoop skirts were accidentally closed in the narrow MuCCC doors leading on and offstage). The set design was largely left to the imagination, consisting of a few desks, chairs, and benches that were repurposed throughout the show. Props were minimal as well; the guns, daggers, and stage blood used in the fight scenes were the most striking visual aids.
MuCCC's pews and theater seats were slightly rearranged for this production, creating a black box theatre feel. It was, again, a bold choice -- but because only a few people chose to sit on the far right side of the auditorium entrance, it was distracting to focus on the stage work with someone at eye level across the way.
The show clocks in at about three and a half hours of stage time, which is a long duration for both audience and cast members to successfully navigate. Overall, there's plenty to admire about this production.If "The Duchess of Malfi" is any indication, Wallbyrd has an incredible amount of potential. It'll be interesting to see what the company learns from this production -- and what they choose to produce next.