By Tristan Lejeune
If the play t’were a man, we should say him better arms, legs and face than creature entire.
We Happy Few’s Fringe Festival production of The Duchess of Malfi reminds you why intelligent, talented theatre companies sometimes tackle deeply flawed scripts: it’s all about what one of my old drama teachers used to call “cookies.”
Every scene, she would say, has to give the audience a cookie, a pleasurable excuse for its own existence. It could be a joke, a song, a touching moment of pathos, a fight, a memorable speech — anything, really. But in addition to moving the plot forward and revealing character, each bit needs a bite.
John Webster’s 17th century Duchess of Malfi comes brimming with cookies: juicy reveals, grim deaths, beautiful monologues. For a play with eight or nine murders, it has a surprising amount of pep. Unfortunately, it also has some wildly inconsistent characters, consternating plot jumps, and a climax that feels more like a pileup on the freeway than the circular firing squads of Hamlet or Titus Andronicus. This play is a delicious cookie platter, but that doesn’t make it a well-rounded meal.
Still, director Paul Reisman’s version, going on at the Flashpoint Gallery, will leave you feeling well-fed. The design is sound, the performances superb, and, perhaps most importantly, the editing is both bloodthirsty and invisible as a five-act play is reduced to a single, not-even-overlong act. Well air-conditioned black boxes can be such a pleasant place to spend a couple summer hours.
Lindsey D. Snyder stars as the titular Duchess, a widow who chooses for her second husband the honorable but poor steward of her house, much to the slightly-hard-to-understand fury of her brothers, Ferdinand (Brit Herring, a live wire) and the Cardinal (Matthew Pauli, a simmering cauldron). Their contrived and frankly ham-handed plots of revenge on the briefly happy couple result in bodies stacking up like bricks as the two brothers wall themselves into their own mess with the help of the wise but easily swayed murderer Bosola (Rafael Untalan).
Snyder, Herring, Pauli, and Untalan are as good in this as any actors you’re likely to see at Fringe, even when their characters strain credulity. As a sympathetic woman of virtue, Snyder has been given by Webster’s script a series of bad decisions followed by an honorable dungeon death, but she finds those moments of quiet strength for which audiences were and are such suckers. And as a stand-in for the wicked Catholic church in a Protestant English play, Pauli’s Cardinal is a mustache-twirler without a mustache, but the actor eschews cut-out villainy, as does Herring’s Ferdinand.
As a pair of plotters, these two are no Claudius and Polonius, but Herring commits to a character who can’t even commit to himself. He’s driven half mad by jealousy and rage, and then his own actions take care of the other half. Equally tough to nail down is Bosola, probably the biggest part of the play, but nail him Untalan does. I don’t know if this hired cutthroat is too smart, too kind, or just incompetent, but he’s fun to watch.
That goes for the whole shebang.
This play is We Happy Few’s first non-Shakespeare offering, and they are to be commended for expanding their palate. This particular Jacobean “masterpiece” lacks Marlowe’s depth of character or Jonson’s wit of plot, but it makes me want to see more from everyone involved. Cookies all around.