Chicago Actors Ensemble

I’d been looking forward to this production of The Duchess of Malfi. I’m a big fan of Jacobean drama, the sensationalist and decadent splatter movies of the early 17th century. Not only that, this is a production of Bertolt Brecht’s adaptation of the John Webster classic, an adaptation that W.H. Auden helped out on. But from the very first moment–when an actor entered, slammed the double doors behind him, and shouted an introduction to the play and the company–I had a sinking feeling. To say that this show is a fiasco would be too extravagant. This show is a flop.

For Brecht himself, The Duchess of Malfi is a bad scene that just got worse. The original impetus for the adaptation was to fashion a star vehicle for a German actor (Elisabeth Bergner) who was married to the producer. After several drafts, Auden joined in the project. Three years later, the show opened on Broadway to damning reviews. Since Brecht’s name was mysteriously absent from the program and therefore not mentioned in the reviews, Auden took the fall. Maybe Brecht foresaw it all going down the tubes. I don’t know. He certainly had a knack for squirming out of uncomfortable situations, from Nazi Germany to the HUAC investigations.

Basically, the Brecht/Auden adaptation is a streamlined version, ironing out the plot, unknotting the gnarly Jacobean dialogue, and adding a prologue (lifted from John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore) that explicitly reveals Duke Ferdinand’s lust for his sister, the Duchess of Malfi. The central plot is more or less unchanged. The duke gets jealous and kills the duchess’s second husband, Antonio. Then the duke kills his brother, the cardinal, for branding their sister a whore. His blood lust yet unslaked (pardon the pun), the duke has the duchess executed, and is, in turn, murdered by the executioner. If you’re familiar with Webster’s original, you can see that the plot is jacked around somewhat, but, in the end, the body count is pretty much the same. The major innovation here is the simplification of Webster’s complicated and confusing plot, so the play is now more accessible. The drawback, however, is that the formerly complex characters have become rather shallow.

But, fret not–Chicago Actors Ensemble has exacted revenge upon Brecht and Auden for their merciless reduction of Webster’s original by making a few innovations of their own. Each act and scene is annoyingly announced by a member of the cast, which, I suppose, amounts to director Steve Gusler’s conception of Brecht’s epic theater. Also, the play now opens and closes with a chant (definitely not gregorian, as that may have required some research) of Kyrie Eleison four times, not three, which is just enough to confound any Catholic in the audience and make Brecht roll over in his grave and puke. Also, in this production the duchess has two children rather than three, who are played by a reluctant boy and a swaddled baby doll. Haphazard cuts in the script somewhat accommodate this trimming down of the duchess’s family, yet you still wonder how that rubber infant is going to “say her prayers ere she sleep.” But these are minor problems compared to the overall performance itself.

Particularly irritating is Rick Helweg as Duke Ferdinand. Even though the duke’s motivations are clear and simple in this adaptation, Helweg doesn’t grasp so much as an iota of the duke’s incestual lust. Helweg’s Duke Ferdinand has two humors, neither of which makes much sense. He either looks like he’s under sedation, studying the floor and playing with his fingers, or he’s the epitome of unfocused rage, roaring and garbling his speech while staring into space like someone who’s lost his glasses–Mr. Magoo in a crisis.

Chris Coldoff (as Antonio, the duchess’s husband) is none too lusty himself. He looks less like the bourgeois courtier Brecht intended than an accountant in a beautician’s smock. And Eric Ronis (as Delio, Antonio’s cousin) gives an absurdly histrionic performance inflated by a self-important rhetorical style that reminded me, especially in the epilogue, of Paul Harvey. The unlusted-for duchess is played by Phila Broich, who shows more determination than skill in creating her character, even if she has to damn well do it in a vacuum. But the duchess, which is the only role that remains as demanding and rich as it was in Webster’s original, is simply beyond Broich’s reach at this point.

Kit Carson’s performance (as the cardinal) caught me by surprise. In the first act, Carson is phlegmatic, bored, like a kid forced to sit through a long, dull Thanksgiving dinner. But late in the second act, and continuing up to his untimely death, the cardinal shapes up as a cynical, greedy, and even humorous villain. Lines like “I am puzzled in a question about Hell,” and “How tedious is a guilty conscience!” have a reflective silliness to them. I only wish this side of the cardinal had emerged earlier, as it’s a great minor role.

Jamie Eldredge gives far and away the best performance as Bosola, the intelligencer, which is a Jacobean term for spy. Eldredge plays Bosola as a flat-out low-life slimeball, a villain for all seasons. Eldredge is sharp, generally consistent, and delectably low, yet his performance suffers from one major flaw. It’s a mystery why Bosola continues to serve the duke when he has a golden opportunity to take the duchess’s jewels and run. Later, Bosola confesses “though I loath’d the evil, yet I lov’d him that did counsel it.” And that’s the problem–you never see Bosola’s love or admiration for the duke.

Of course, you never see a lot of things in this show, which is the fault of Steve Gusler’s amateurish direction. There’s no blocking or physical imagery worth mentioning; actors just hang around like randomly placed traffic cones. Scenes rarely have a point, and when they do, the point is ludicrous. In the scene where Bosola travels to the war in Cyprus to give the duke news of the duchess’s sex life, the duke’s response is completely obscured by some low-budget mayhem, with the entire ensemble running around and screaming. What’s the point? And in the scenes that call for violence and horror, especially the murder scenes, Gusler resorts to ridiculous gimmicks like strobe lights and recordings of sci-fi madrigals. But Gusler’s grossest negligence is in his direction of actors. Even the most fundamental relationships–whether they’re based on love, lust, admiration, or envy–are fumbled. Most of all, the tension, intrigue, and implied threat, which are the real guts of Jacobean drama, are lost while Gusler is trying to figure out which knee a courtier is supposed to genuflect on.

So, you’ll have a better time if you check the play out of the library and read it. There’s no reason to put yourself through this, unless perhaps you want to feel the pain and horror, instead of watch it on the stage.