John Webster's Jacobean drama, The Duchess of Malfi is rarely produced on stage, and for good reason. Not only are its themes bleak and unsettling – destructive sibling rivalries, child birth out of wedlock and the desecration of strong women – but the play's characters are both complex and stereotyped, making it difficult for any performer to assume Webster's personages.
With his Senior Thesis production, however, Paul Serritella daringly extracts from the disturbing play solid, effective performances. Rivaling standard Princeton fare, Serritella provides us with an exciting, if somewhat muted, interpretation of Webster's little read or seen drama.
Set in 16th century Italy, The Duchess of Malfi focuses on the title character (Jennie Snyder '99) and her desire to break free of the men around her. When the Duchess' husband dies, her two brothers (James Stanford '98 and Tucker Culbertson '99) try to control her future. They do not want their sister to marry another man for fear of tarnishing her reputation. To assure this, they hire Bosola (Brian Bennett '99), a spy, to monitor all of her actions.
Contrary to the wishes of her siblings, the Duchess falls in love with Antonio (Sean Garrett-Roe '99), a servant of the household. Defying traditional female roles, she seduces and proposes to him. They are married in secret; the only other person present is the Duchess' handmaiden, Cariola (Emily Moore '99) who never leaves her side. The heroine gives birth to several children, all without the knowledge of the Court. These actions ultimately break the chain of being and lead to chaos.
The interaction between Snyder and Moore is superb. Cariola dotes excessively on the Duchess, playing with her hair and standing behind her with maternally prim adoration. This provides the production with an intensity that is not met in the interchanges between any of the other performers.
Cariola, a commoner, lives somewhat vicariously through the actions of the Duchess. Not even this, however, explains why they remain the most captivating duo even when they are not the focus of the action. This intense symbiotic relationship and the resolve Snyder displays in pursuing the Duchess' interests creates a truly three-dimensional title character.
A notable side plot reveals one of the Duchess' brothers, the Cardinal (Stanford), as having an affair with the only other female character, the promiscuous, though betrothed Julia (Mary Bonner Baker '00). After the Cardinal's speeches of chastity regarding the Duchess, his indifference towards Julia's adultery is disturbing. Julia embodies the very abandonment of traditional morality the Duchess seems to represent. Even though Webster punishes this licentious behavior in both characters, the playwright suggests that these women are not at fault. Ardor is a legitimate emotion, jealousy is not.
Baker flits between the passion and the incertitude which plagues her character with flair. Stanford retains the Cardinal's stoicism and cruelty and creates his character as a despicable villain.
Bennett moves with sleekness and stealth as Bosola acts as a guidepost throughout the play, appearing periodically to pontificate or pass on information. He appears uncomfortable with his existence as evil incarnate, but this does not affect his work as a spy. This dialectic within his personality reinforces the two-faced nature of many of the characters, again exemplified by the Cardinal. As he sways slightly with a bowed head while addressing the audience, Bennett is exceptionally dark and elucidates the other characters' more insidious flaws.
Inside Matthew's Studio at 185 Nassau, the audience is in close proximity with the the actors, inciting a sense of emotional closeness. On the L-shaped stage, the action is split between three separate regions. The light dims or increases to draw attention to specific conversations.
The lighting accents a group of characters and shifts others to the back-burner while not eliminating them from the stage. This creates the impression of a live dollhouse, whereby the audience can look into each room in the court and see how people live and interact when not impeded by the direct presence of others.
Serritella's vision of the piece as a whole combines the dismal Jacobean dramas with a Humphrey Bogart-esque exploration of individual strength.
The Duchess refuses to submit to the whims of society, but in this brave persistence, faces an ill-destined future. Webster's heroine is ahead of her time and is thereby a paragon of gender-bending roles even today.
Although a tragedy like many Shakespearean dramas of the same era, The Duchess of Malfi does not leave a sense of despair as it comes to an end. Instead, it evokes distinct strength and morality, the mires of which entrap the characters of the piece. As a result of the intimacy of the theatre and strength of the actors, a portion of their struggle and passions are imparted onto the audience members. One is left with a heightened sense of reality mixed in with a dash of carpe diem.
The Duchess of Malfi will be performed tonight, tomorrow and Saturday at 8p.m. at 185 Nassau. Call 8-3676 for tickets and information.