‘Duchess’ reimagines a classic

‘The Duchess of Malfi,’ a workshop production will be showing this Thursday and Saturday. photo courtesy of '62 center
‘The Duchess of Malfi,’ a workshop production will be showing this Thursday and Saturday. photo courtesy of ’62 center

On Thursday and Saturday, the Williams Department of Theatre will present a performance of the John Webster classic The Duchess of Malfi. The production is conceived as a workshop, designed to re-examine the canonical play and how it fits into our modern time and lives. According to the press release, it poses the series of questions, “What does it mean to do a Renaissance play right? Fidelity to the text? To the staging? To the meaning?” In effect, the workshop will analyze the process of re-imagining art from the past and as such, the process of theatre and art in general.

As the vehicle for this analysis, Webster’s play The Duchess of Malfi, was concieved in the years 1612-13. It is a macabre, twisted tragedy littered with surprise and intrigue. From beginning to end, it displays a strange and unexpected metamorphosis from the charming love story of a recently widowed duchess into a disturbing tale of her brothers’ revenge. The presiding Duchess at the court of Amalfi falls in love with the steward Antonio, yet is forbidden to marry due to her brothers’ greed and desire to keep their inheritance for her. It is a story that prominently features the dominance of the patriarchy. The Duchess attempts to thwart the system, marrying Antonio and bearing him three children, only to provoke a detrimental sequence of events whereby her brothers exact a macabre plan of revenge upon her and their court. Corruption, cruelty, power and gender feature as the thematic examinations of the play. Privilege, excess and mercy also emerge as central ideas.

The man to convert such themes from their Jacobean origin into relevant exposés of our own society is David Levine. The press release from the College lauds his presence, saying “artist and director David Levine applies his signature blend of art and life, acting and being, character and person.” Levine’s cast will feature Benjamin Williams ’17, Rebecca Fallon ’14, Elizabeth Stern ’14, Connor Lawhorn ’14, Devyn Hebert ’17, CJ Higgins ’14, Tallis Moore ’14, Alison Bunis ’16 and Chris Siemer ’16. Levine himself recently received a 2013 Village Voice OBIE award for his installation Habit and was a 2013 Fellow in Visual Arts at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. Currently, he is working as the Director of Studio and Performing Arts at Bar College, Berlin. In a recent Huffington Post article, he was quoted as asking “What makes theater, theater? The ritual surrounding it or the content itself?” Clearly, such concerns have remained integral throughout his body of work and this remains true for The Duchess of Malfi.

A great part of the ritual of theater lies in its presentation. The set and aesthetic form of the Williams Department of Theater’s latest production is as integral to its promise and potential as is its dramatic content. Randall Fippinger, manager of performances and events at the ’62 Center, recommends all make a visit to the set, lauding its creativity and beauty. Working on this set is Marsha Ginsbery, a New York City based scenic and costume designer for theater and opera. Her work has been presented regionally and internationally at theaters such as the New York City Opera, Guggenheim Museum, MASS MoCA and Tanglewood, among others. Ginsberg, when talking to the LA Times, stated, “I consider my set designs to be a form of artwork … my sets use the space pretty aggressively, so I have to work with a director who is interested in that. One of the things I think about is how a director likes to move people around, and most of the directors I work with tend to move actors around in a nonrealistic way.”

Ginsbery and Levine promise to provide a harmonious, productive and most of all highly experimental interaction. The Duchess of Malfi should showcase all that such talent has to offer. Performances are Thursday, March 13th to Saturday, March 15th, at 7:30 PM in the ’62 Center’s CenterStage, located at 1000 Main Street, in Williamstown, MA. Tickets are $3. Seating is limited.