THEATER REVIEW | Classical Actors Ensemble’s “Twelfe Night” and “The Duchess of Malfi”: Half a good double feature


I should probably say up front that I’m the perfect audience for Shakespeare’s romantic comedy Twelfth Night (or, Twelfe Night, as they spell it here), and I’m probably the worst audience for something like John Webster‘s tragedy The Duchess of Malfi. So take everything that follows with a grain of salt and that context in mind. 

“Farewell, lusty widow.”

Classical Actors Ensemble seems to have settled on the production strategy of “running two wildly different shows with similar thematic elements at the same time, using the same cast for both” as their new mode of business (plus a little summer Shakespeare in the Park, of course). It’s a savvy move, because then you can pair one better known work (such as their recent Romeo and Juliet) with a lesser known work (R and J’s partner this spring was A Chaste Maid In Cheapside), and help bolster the fortunes of one with the other. Also, you can offset the risk of doing a tragedy by teaming it up with a comedy. No one play has to do all the heavy lifting of getting an audience in the door. Once you have a crowd for one, you can easily make the case for them coming to see the other. It makes for an attractive challenge for the actors, and a way they can get two classics on their resume for one period of work. I like the strategy. Of course, this also means that, as I just did, you might end up seeing a play you maybe don’t like as much, even though you like the company, and the ensemble of actors who just put on another play you liked quite a lot. This is where I find myself with 12th Night and The Duchess of Malfi.

“It never rains such showers as these without thunderbolts in the tail of them.”

Even though 12th Night is one of my favorite plays, one I can’t seem to get enough of, I’ve already seen it done twice just this past summer. Theatre Pro Rata did a Shakespeare in the Park version, and there was a two-part treatment of the play as part of the recent Minnesota Fringe Festival. The hook for getting me to see yet another production of 12th Night so soon (apart from the fact that the cast includes actors whose work I really like such as Hannah Steblay, Michael Ooms and Neal Beckman), is that Classical Actors Ensemble is doing the play in something called “original pronunciation.” 400 years ago, apparently the English language sounded a little different. I was afraid it might be Chaucer levels of different, but it turns out just a handful of words really sound all that different. Mostly it sounds like someone’s performing Shakespeare with a slight Irish or Scottish accent most of the time. It’s an interesting exercise, and in some cases it makes the poetry sound prettier, but it doesn’t really impact the play much one way or the other. If you just want to see 12th Night and you don’t care what it sounded like back when it was first performed, Classical Actors Ensemble’s production will still be very enjoyable. The language experiment doesn’t get in the way of the play at all. Which is good, because the audience needs to lighten up if (like me) the play you saw first was the extremely dark Duchess of Malfi.

“Blood flies upward and bedews the heavens.”

Hannah Steblay is the titular Duchess of Malfi, a young widow who decides she wants to get married again, this time to Antonio (Lucas Gerstner), her house steward, a man far below her station in society. Her two brothers don’t take well to this idea. Duke Ferdinand (Daniel Joeck) and the Cardinal (Neal Beckman) both think their sister should remain a widow. Their reasons could be many. Since the Duchess doesn’t have any children, if she doesn’t remarry, her power and wealth will fall to them when she dies, assuming they outlive her. The question of “what will the neighbors think?” about her marrying a lowly servant of the house certainly is part of it. Mostly though, there seems to be some weird pseudo-incestuous jealousy going on, particularly in Ferdinand’s case. The brothers make it their mission to undermine the Duchess’ new marriage and her new family of three children. And if that means killing everyone in sight, well, that’s just the price of doing business and maintaining the patriarchal social order. The hired gun they use to execute their gruesome plots is a former soldier, Bosola (Michael Ooms), a man not without kindness or intellect who finds himself quite conflicted about his mission. That does not, however, keep him from carrying it out. Frankly, it’s a wonder anyone is left standing at the end of The Duchess of Malfi.  Playwright John Webster does love a high body count.

“I am going into a wilderness where I shall find no path or friendly clue to be my guide.”

My main problems with The Duchess of Malfi as a piece of theater are two-fold. One, it’s a horrifically misogynist play, emphasis on the horror. Now if it was treated as some kind of a cautionary tale or a commentary on the misogyny inherent in society (past and present), that would be one thing.  But that’s not what this production is about. It simply presents the story, almost reveling in the bloodshed rained down upon the title character, breaking her spirit and will to live. So, if that’s your thing, I guess, have at it. 

“If thou love him, cut out thy tongue lest it betray him.”

Horror isn’t my genre generally, though I did just sit through all nine offerings at the recent Twin Cities Horror Festival. While bad things (often really, really bad things) happened to women in those plays, I didn’t get the sense that either the playwrights or the productions in general hated women. In fact, many of the plays pivoted on the notion of women having their own agency and fighting back being a good thing. Sort of the photo negative of the narrative that Malfi is peddling. In general I just don’t find the narrative strategy of “putting the woman back in her place” all that satisfying as a platform for either comedy or drama (which is why, with one notable exception, I also don’t like Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew).

“All our wit and breeding brings us to a truer sense of sorrow.”

So I found the underlying messages that serve as the foundation of The Duchess of Malfi, both the play and the production, deeply troubling. Which is a shame, because there’s some good work going on here. Ooms and Steblay in particular give very strong performances. Not coincidentally, they were the characters whose politics I shared. It should be noted that the outfit which costume designer Kiley Cermak created for the Cardinal is a stunning vision in red. Additionally, Justin Hooper’s multilevel and multilayered set design, which serves as the home for both plays, takes on completely different personalities for the two works and serves as a perfect location for both—which is not easy to do at all, so a big round of applause there. That change in location personality between the two plays also has a lot to do with Dietrich Poppen’s lighting design. And any play that has somebody killed by kissing a poison Bible is perversely kind of fun. But I found it hard to enjoy even the little things in The Duchess of Malfi because overall, I find the play repugnant. (If you find this line of discussion to be politically correct nonsense, then by all means ignore me and go see the play.)

“Fortune now seems only to have the eyesight to see my tragedy.”

The other half of my problem with Webster’s play is another standard production choice of Classical Actors Ensemble, which is to do the whole play, every single line. As a playwright myself, I can’t even believe I’m arguing in favor of editing a writer’s work without their permission. If the writer were living, I wouldn’t stand for it. I can imagine all kinds of ways in which what I’m saying right now could be turned back around and bite me in the butt. But it’s not like today’s audiences can just walk out for a while as the scenes are playing out on stage and come back later like audience would do back in the day when these plays were first done 400 years ago. Modern audiences are there for every line, so they don’t need the repetition and revisiting of character and situation, they don’t need filler scenes to mark time while part of the audience takes a bathroom break. They’re not at the theater to make a day of it. Instead it’s often the end of the day, and if you’re going to ask an audience to sit still for over three hours, there better be a good reason for it in every single line. In The Duchess of Malfi, there isn’t. Heck in most of Shakespeare’s plays, there isn’t. Are the lines nice? Are they pretty? Are they clever? Sure. Are they necessary? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. 

“I hold my weary soul in my teeth. It is ready to part from me.”

Audiences process story differently in the 21st century than they did in the 17th or 18th century. Keep the lines and the characters and the plot threads that you absolutely need to in order to get the point of the story across, and then get yourself a fair but brutal dramaturg to help excise the rest. Webster’s long dead. After I’ve been dead over 300 years, I suppose I won’t care much how someone might be telling my stories, I’d just be posthumously thrilled they still *are* telling my stories (not that I’m assuming for a second that they will, few of us have Shakespeare’s staying power as a storyteller). And I don’t say this just about The Duchess of Malfi, whose charms clearly escape me. While I was amused and intrigued to hear lines spoken aloud that I’d only ever read before in 12th Night, I’m a huge theater geek, and a 12th Night fan in particular. If this were my first exposure to 12th Night, I might start to wonder about the 2-1/2 hour mark why everyone’s going on and on so much. There’s an academic/theater history argument for doing all the lines surely. But I’m not sure there’s an entertainment or, more important, a storytelling reason to do it.  I’m going to argue that the leaner and more efficient your storytelling is, the more powerful and compelling it is. (Again, your mileage may vary. If this sounds like your kind of night at the theater, tell me to get stuffed and go see for yourself. Enjoy.)

“Foolery, sir, does walk about the earth like the sun; it shines everywhere.”

On the flip side of this double feature, 12th Night is one of my favorite scripts (not just of Shakespeare’s, but of any writer’s) for a host of reasons but primarily because it is such an effusive and effective vehicle about the joys and pains and complications of love. And there are a lot of complications (and a lot of love) going on here. Twins Viola (Marika Proctor) and Sebastian (Luke Tourville) are separated in a shipwreck during a storm at sea. Unbeknownst to one another, they both wash up on the shore of the same country, Illyria. Looking to make her way on her own in the world and avoid the sometimes unwanted advances of men, Viola disguises herself as a boy named Cesario and in her new identity serves on the court of duke Orsino (Daniel Joeck). Orsino pines for the love of the countess Olivia (Nicole Joy Frethem). But Olivia is in mourning for her recently deceased father and brother and deaf to all protestations of love. Or so she thinks. When Orsino sends Cesario to plead his case to Olivia, Olivia finds herself falling for the charms of the young man, making up excuses so “he” will continue to return. Cesario/Viola is torn in her mission because she’s in love with Orsino herself.

“I can hardly forbear hurling things at him.”

Olivia is unaware that one of her head servants Malvolio (Michael Kelley) is infatuated with her as well. She also has the unwanted courting of Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Neal Beckman) to fend off. Sir Andrew is being encouraged by Olivia’s dissolute cousin Sir Toby Belch (Joe Wiener), mostly so Toby can get Andrew to keep paying for the drinks on their nightly revels. When Toby’s rowdy behavior runs afoul of Malvolio, Toby enlists the aid of Olivia’s crafty lady-in-waiting Maria (Samantha Velldhouse) to set Malvolio up to make a fool of himself in a play for Olivia’s affections. They are aided in their plot by Olivia’s court jester, Feste (Michael Quadrozzi), a musical fellow who makes a good living teasing and serenading the lovelorn inhabitants of both Orsino’s and Olivia’s households.

“The melancholy god protect thee.”

Meanwhile, Viola’s brother Sebastian is unknowingly making his way back to his sister who he thought he lost at sea. He is aided by Antonio (Michael Ooms), who harbors an unrequited affection for the young man, and accompanies Sebastian even though he has some unfinished business in Orsino’s court that could get him thrown in jail. When Sebastian starts crossing paths with people in both houses who mistake him for his twin sister in male attire, things get hilariously crossed up until everyone can finally be reunited and their love connections sorted out.

“Poor lady, she would better love a dream.”

Everyone here does a delightful job of keeping things light and silly. Most importantly, you believe that everyone cares deeply for everyone else, whether they have a prayer of getting the love they want or not. Even though The Duchess of Malfi wasn’t to my taste, the fact that the same company can turn around and pull off such a successful production of Twelfe Night (often the very same day) is a good argument for their versatility and skill.  Director Joseph Papke has put together a challenging double bill, and a great many of his actors rise to the occasion and make it pay off.  So it’s a split decision on this one, really. High marks for 12th Night, question marks for The Duchess of Malfi. No matter what way your tastes in theater may tend, you’re bound to have a lively discussion about both.

4 Stars – Highly Recommended