A stark, surreal blast of choreographed tragedy currently resides in the University Theater. The Yale School of Drama’s production of “The Duchess of Malfi” re-imagines the classic play in a quasi-modern setting with decidedly disturbing results.
John Webster’s Jacobean drama, which played contemporaneously with Shakespeare’s plays, echoes the Bard in both its language and its five-act format (divided into two for this production). The two dramatists part ways when Webster’s subject matter takes on morbid fascinations partially illustrated in this production by Rumiko Ishii’s grandiose industrial decay of a set.
As the plot spirals into darkness, Webster addresses contemporary issues of female social status and marriage. The Duchess of Malfi (Corena Chase DRA ’06) is newly widowed and her brothers, the Duke Ferdinand (Alex Organ DRA ’06) and The Cardinal (David Matranga DRA ’06), plan to arrange her next marriage in order to improve the family’s status and power.
The Duchess, however, has entirely different aims in mind. She wants the freedom to choose her own mate, but finds that her position hampers any hope of an idealistic romantic relationship.
Near the beginning of the play, the Duchess declares, “The misery of us that are born great! We are forced to woo, because none dare woo us.” Though her attempts at wooing are successful, the subsequent events tumble out of her control, leading toward an inevitably bloody end.
The introduction to the play, with its herd of minor players, unwinds slowly and fails to delineate the complicated characters and relationships adequately. Director Susanna Gellert DRA ’06 has attempted to alleviate the confusion with a pantomime opening sequence, but this scene, while amusing in its surreal exaggerated motions, does not succeed in explicating the complexities of the character relationships.
Still, the often comical nature of the play weaves in high tragedy with only a few unfortunate missteps. The most realistic feature of this play may be the coordinated coupling of life’s joyous and lamentable moments.
Otherwise, this production leaves naturalism and traditional productions behind, with a set that exposes the entire stage floor of the University Theater and costumes that vaguely evoke the 1950s.
Continuing in a vein akin to film noir, the incidental music (supplied by Amy Altadonna DRA ’07) appears to have been inspired equally by Raymond Chandler and James Bond movies. Humor brought by the clever usage of music often alleviates the intensity of moments that would othewise leave audience members squirming in their seats.
Spy film motifs also feature in Gellert’s direction, which explores Webster’s fascination with human depravity and desperation, highlighting themes concerning incest, insanity, lust and power.
In a stunning turn as the conflicted Bosola, Richard Gallagher DRA ’06 asks, “What thing is in this outward form of man to be beloved?” Webster’s version of humanity is not only undeserving of love but also often unquestionably repulsive, making it difficult for any character to appear sympathetic.
Gallagher portrays the Iago-like Bosola less as a villain than as an everyman, making him much more palatable. Gallagher’s Bosola is simply a man trying to ascertain a sense of morality while staring at the blood on his hands, and he deftly unites the humorous, tragic, real and surreal elements of the production.
As the impulsive, charismatic Ferdinand, Organ brings his character’s conflicted and selfish nature to passionate life. Chase fully embodies an emotionally emaciated Duchess with certainty and a rather light touch.
The most ingenious element of the production comes in the form of Melissa Mizell DRA ’08’s inventive lighting design. Highlight and shadow become essential to the visual lexicon of the production, weaving a new and visually stimulating layer into the telling of the narrative.
A difficult balance of depravity and humor, “The Duchess of Malfi” tackles a number of complex themes with gusto, but the nature of the foundational concept remains in shadow. The power of this production lies in its moments of disturbing brilliance, which reveal the primal force that accompanies live theater at its best.