The FSU/Asolo Conservatory’s The Duchess of Malfi is a struggle for actors and audiences alike.
By Kay Kipling
It’s important to remember when viewing the FSU/Asolo Conservatory’s current production of The Duchess of Malfi that the Conservatory is, first and foremost, a learning institution. That reminder may help one to accept that the experience of adapting a contemporary style to this 17th-century John Webster tragedy was most likely an intriguing one for the students and their director, though it is much less rewarding for the audience.
Duchess is, obviously, a bear to tackle. That’s not just because of the heavily laden language of the late Elizabethan-era play, but because of the themes Webster explores. Lust, rape, incest, abuse of power, political intrigue and murders of all kinds are presented here, yet often with a macabre comic touch. That’s a challenge for any company to pull off, and the Conservatory actors here often struggle, perhaps more so since little of the action is offered with any realistic approach.
Briefly, the plot centers around the young, widowed duchess (Elisabeth Ahrens), whose brothers, a cardinal and a duke (David Yearta and DeMario McGrew) are most reluctant for her to marry again, as it would dilute their inheritance. They’re even more outraged when she picks for her intended the steward of her household (Dolph Paulsen) and promptly begins having children with him. To avenge the family honor, the brothers decide that the duchess must be punished. But as the evening wears on, sometimes seemingly interminably, one starts to wonder, why must we be punished too?
Elisabeth Ahrens, Heather Kelley and Jason Peck in the FSU/Asolo Conservatory’s The Duchess of Malfi.
For that’s the feeling one gets, as director Susanna Gellert makes choice after choice that pushes us farther away from any sense of involvement with the action or the characters. From the set, which resembles a particularly depressing church basement, to the modern, casual costumes, which prevent us from grasping any issues of class and rank the original surely means for us to, to the intrusion of video cameras, television screens, CD players and microphones (to what purpose we’re not sure), the production seems determined to alienate the viewer rather than engage him.
There’s no doubt that The Duchess of Malfi does contain issues that resound today, albeit in different settings and different ways, but this production doesn’t draw the connections convincingly, despite its modern trappings. Certainly a lot of hard work and effort went into the production; it’s a pity it doesn’t pay off.
The Duchess of Malfi continues onstage at the Cook Theatre through March 16; for tickets call 351-8000 or visit asolo.org.