Last Thursday, Friday and Saturday night on the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance’s CenterStage at 7:30 p.m, in a workshop of 17th century English dramatist John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, director David Levine synthesized modern dialogue, costumes, set and pop music with Webster’s original script. Elizabeth Stern ’14 portrayed a widowed duchess whose secret marriage prompts her ensuing downfall at the hands of her greedy brothers (Connor Lawhorn ’16 and Benjamin Williams ’17).
Levine’s spin on The Duchess of Malfi was evident upon the audience’s arrival. CenterStage’s floor was covered with books, complicating the mobility of the actors and facilitating a farcical attempt to hide the duchess’s maid, Cariola (Devyn Hébert ’17) during an interview between the duchess and her husband Antonio (Tallis Moore ’14). The stage’s center platform served as the duchess’s modern bedroom, with dorm style floor lamps and an iPod speaker. Audience members were invited to sit
anywhere around this floor and center platform, although some seats proved better suited to viewing the action in three overhanging platforms than others did. These moveable platforms each represented a different location, including the duchess’ brother Ferdinand’s apartment, which was entirely covered in tin foil. The action in this room was projected on the opposite wall for audience members seated under this piece of the set, but both the projection and the majority of the interior of the room were obscured from some viewpoints. To resolve this problem, several audience members took Levine up on his offer to change seats mid-play, although this added distraction and further inconvenience.
Levine’s use of a variety of sets and costumes, including a skeleton suit, animal print leggings and a pajama onesie, helped maintain audience attention through Duchess’s rather long runtime of three hours. The actors utilized nearly every corner of the space, running throughout the second level, climbing up and down a rope ladder and crawling facedown all over the book-laden floor. They threw a paper airplane, coins and dolls representing children at each other. Varying degrees of success in catching added to the play’s blithe tone. Levine’s incorporation of music was also refreshing – pop songs played from an iPod in the duchess’s room, adding a layer of drama and comedy to events.
Stern’s duchess became a modern feminist rebel who follows her passions against the wishes of her brothers. In an excellent prison scene, Stern showcased the arrogance and pettiness of the duchess as she gossips with Cariola and Julia (Rebecca Fallon ’14). In one of many frequent popular culture references, Stern amusingly demonstrates the duchess’s experience of aristocratic privilege and egotism through a reference to the HBO series Girls; “I totally relate to Hannah’s struggles to express herself.” She and her two cellmates then debated the merits of artists Lorde, Ke$ha and Rihanna, incorporating trenchant social analysis of elitism, and then declared themselves Scientologists. An a cappella group enters to belt The Fray’s inane “You Found Me,” to taunt the imprisoned duchess. At this point, the play had nearly reached the peak of its intentionally comic absurdity. The peak came when Ferdinand sent his sister a fake dead hand, purported to be that of Antonio, via the character of Pescara, played by Alison Bunis ’16.
The juxtaposition of Webster’s original dialogue with modern lines and improvisation was incredibly successful. Characters transitioned with ease between the Middle English “fie, fie” and “dude.” Although the play was at times difficult to follow, characters helped by occasionally breaking from Webster’s words and delivering explanations in more accessible terms. Moore endeared Antonio, the duchess’s secret husband, to the audience with frankness and playfulness in lines like “I’d be just as happy as a school teacher on the West Coast.” Moore’s chemistry with Stern’s duchess was charming when she asked, “What distracts you?” Antonio quipped “Well, the music for one,” which was quite distracting and detracting from the scene’s seriousness, but a spirited duchess retorted, “No, it’s great.” This sort of self-awareness in a play that recognizes and embraces its own silliness made Duchess highly enjoyable.
Stern and Moore were certainly not the only outstanding student actors. Fallon’s Julia was as independent as the duchess herself, as she conducted an ill-fated affair with Williams’s cardinal. The tirade from CJ Higgins ’14 as Bosola was truly hilarious, especially when he compared himself to Charlie Brown with a football. Likewise, Lawhorn’s concluding monologue of madness, in which he described his ambitions to construct a moon base and create a new and better species of humans “that will go into space and never die” was the perfect ending to Levine’s chaotically absurd rendition of The Duchess of Malfi.
Although at times difficult to follow and halting in dialogue, Levine’s Duchess provoked outright laughter and a swell of applause at its conclusion. Keeping in mind its work-in-progress nature as a workshop, The Duchess of Malfi was a spectacle well-worth seeing.