The Bard didn’t mean to warp modern audiences’ opinions. But Shakespeare’s work is so frequently produced, adapted, parodied, and imitated that his influence dwarfs that of any other theatrical artist.
One downside of that influence is that the context of Shakespeare’s work is lost. The early Renaissance was one of the most profoundly important times for the development of theatre in the English speaking world. And yet, most audiences only see that time period through the productions and lens of Shakespeare. But Shakespeare was not some lone genius creating his masterpieces in a vacuum; he was following trends as much as he was setting them. Seeing plays written by Shakespeare’s contemporaries makes this clear and increases understanding and appreciation for the Bard.
That is why I am profoundly grateful to the Grassroots Shakespeare Company for taking the risk of producing The Duchess of Malfi, a play written by John Webster in the sunset years of Shakespeare’s career. The Duchess of Malfi is a revenge tragedy—the same subgenre that Hamlet, Titus Andronicus, and Othello belong to. Webster’s play tells the story of the title character (played by Jessica Jean Myer), a widow who clandestinely marries Antonio (played by Robert Ikey Starks). When her brothers, Duke Ferdinand (played by Soren Budge) and the Cardinal (played by Addison Blakely Radle), learn that she has secretly married a man beneath their social status and borne him children, they decide to make the Duchess and her husband suffer the consequences.
Playing the henchman Bosola, Kristopher Miles provides the most memorable performance of the evening. Miles excels at portraying Bosola as a ruffian, spitting his words and oozing malevolence. As the seriousness of the play’s events wear on, Miles showed his character’s realistic and gradual change of heart, which gave Bosola the most depth of any character in the play. His sorrow when the Duchess dies was the most poignant moment in the show, and that humanity made me willing to forgive him of his earlier atrocities.
Myer’s portrayed the Duchess with grace and dignity that made it believable she was born into nobility. Myer had an endearing trepidation when the Duchess confessed her love to Antonio, and Myer’s decision to play the scene maturely was consistent with her character’s age and experience. (No giddy young lovers here!) Unfortunately, Starks seemed to have little romantic interest in Myer, and the sexual energy between the two never materialized. Starks, generally, had little emotion behind his performance. Some anxiety or panic when the Duchess enters labor for her first child, or some fear for Antonio’s personal safety would have enriched the show. Starks and Jarrith McCoy (in the role of Delio) shouldered the play’s exposition, introducing the principal characters one by one as each entered the stage. Both actors handled this talky, burdensome dialogue well and made The Duchess of Malfi easy to understand.
I have less to say about the other members of the cast of nine actors because the script did not give these performers as much to work with. Budge was fine as Duke Ferdinand, and his cool, calculated villainy was chilling. Radle plays the stereotypical lecherous cleric well, and his cruelty when he kills Julia (played by Liza Shoell) was particularly vicious. There were some cast members who hesitated a little bit with their lines, but I expect the show to become more fluid as its run continues. The ensemble is very cohesive, though, as is apparent in the unified directorial vision they had and the uniform pacing of the play, despite the lack of a director.
The visual elements of Grassroots productions continue to improve. The costumes were the most complex and visually appealing of any Grassroots show. Miles, usually dressed in all black, is menacing in his “garb of melancholy,” which included heavy boots that gave weight to his walk and eye-catching gloves that had attached wrist guards. Budge’s costume was the most elaborate, including a double-breasted red patterned vest, knee-length breeches, and white cravat that made him look every bit like a wealthy 17th century duke. I’m also pleased to report that Grassroots has added a small upstage platform to their stage, which adds a level to their playing space. I hope it becomes a permanent fixture in the future.
Ironically, the best reason to see The Duchess of Malfi is also the play’s biggest drawback. In the process of giving audiences insight into Shakespeare’s theatrical context, comparisons with Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, and other Shakespearean masterpieces are inevitable. Unfortunately, The Duchess of Malfi falls short every time. Yes, the guards are buffoons, but they’re not Dogberry. Bosola’s wrestling with his conscience is rewarding to watch, but it is not sustained or psychologically real as any scene in Hamlet. The Duchess has a sweet relationship with her servant Carioal (played by Maddie Pettingill), but it lacks the feminine closeness of Rosalind and Celia. The Duchess herself is sympathetic and virtuous, but she’s a poor imitation of Desdemona. I could go on.
But those are not fair comparisons because they only occur because Webster wrote The Duchess of Malfi in the same milieu as some of the greatest plays of all time. Had The Duchess of Malfi been written a century earlier or later, it would stand on its own as a fine product the era. As it is, The Duchess of Malfi is a rare treat; in nearly 10 years of reviewing plays in Utah, this is only the fifth time UTBA has reviewed a play written by one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. (The other four plays were Doctor Faustus, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, The Revenger’s Tragedy, and Edward II.) In contrast, the site has published reviews of over 150 Shakespeare productions. I applaud the Grassroots Shakespeare Company for expanding the theatrical horizons of Utah audiences and bringing some balance to modern understandings of this important era of theatre history. I urge readers to give The Duchess of Malfi their time. Bundle up and bring a blanket, though.