Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Devil and John Webster

Jennie Israel prepares to die in The Duchess of Malfi.

The Globe and the Herald have applauded the Actors' Shakespeare Project's new production of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi (above), and it's easy to understand why: the production is smartly designed, it's an admirable - even risky - attempt to bring a neglected classic to the public, and (let's be honest) all the right people are associated with it. Still, it's hard for me to shake the feeling that these critics - both of whom clearly have never encountered the play before - are applauding the fact they've been offered a palatable simulacrum of Webster, rather than the thing itself. This production, like all the work of its director, David R. Gammons, is sleek and visually striking. It's just not John Webster.

To play devil's advocate with myself, however, I must admit the production also dilutes or dodges many of Webster's greatest flaws. Its publicity declares the playwright second only to Shakespeare among Jacobean dramatists. Okay, that's probably the current trend in the academy - still, Ben Jonson was rated higher by contemporaries (and of course Marlowe, admittedly an Elizabethan, was obviously greater). And there's still a chasm between Shakespeare and his rivals, and watching any other Jacobean can only underline this distance. Take, for instance, even an early Shakespeare play like Midsummer Night's Dream - the one even a middle school can plausibly pull off. It takes its theme - let's call it "the comic blindness of love" - and charmingly runs it through a symphonic set of variations via several casts of characters up and down the social scale; this alone would make it a farce for the ages. But it also includes several rhetorical set-pieces so beautiful they've been all but memorized by the culture, as well as some strikingly resonant metaphors (the fairyland, Bottom's transformation). Then, on top of that, there's a hilarious parody of the tragic problem of love in the last act (and even a burlesque of the Bard's own style), as well as a thoughtful analysis of love's relation to madness and our position as the 'audience' of our own lives, plus a hidden meditation on the theological problem of the love of God (surely the blindest love of all), via discombobulated quotations from St. Paul.

Through all of this, of course, the pace of the plot is expertly managed. And this is one of Shakespeare's less challenging plays. Compare and contrast to John Webster (or even Kit Marlowe) who can certainly pen gorgeous rhetorical set-pieces, but who gets awkward when managing even a single sub-plot.

Okay, Shakespeare rocks. But he's not just better technically than the other Jacobeans, he's different in his very nature. When Harold Bloom says that Shakespeare "invented" what it means to be human, he partly means that the Bard imbued his characters with a lyrical flexibility; what makes Shakespeare's tragedies so piercing is that his characters always have the potential to transcend their situations: Lear comes back from madness, and even Hamlet seems to reconcile with his mother.

The other Jacobeans, however, as a rule spurn such optimistic illusions - and they may be right; perhaps the spiritual beauty Shakespeare confers on us isn't really deserved. At any rate, they generally replace his lyrical meditations with grotesque sensation - and a high reliance on stage horror of every stripe: severed limbs rub shoulders constantly, as it were, with incest and rape. Intriguingly, the production that first brought David R. Gammons acclaim - his Titus Andronicus - was of Shakespeare's first, and most typically "Jacobean," tragedy (I know, I know, it's dated from Elizabeth's reign, but work with me).

In that case, Gammons's high sheen of abstraction beautifully subdued the piece's over-the-top horrors - its torn-out tongues and children baked in pies - and freed the Bard's contorted evocation of absurdist doom from its grindhouse trappings. It was an inspired strategy - for Shakespeare. But it actually works against John Webster, because in Webster, the severed limbs and incest are the main event. The endlessly vile episodes - capped, of course, with well-deserved deaths - are what Webster revels in, and without them, somehow his grim, skull-beneath-the-skin honesty loses its power.

Of course, his repetitions can also seem, well, just repetitious; and Gammons does dodge that particular pitfall - his production is leaner and cleaner than the previous ones I've seen, and puts the best possible spin on Webster's uneven dramaturgy. But rather obviously he manages this by cutting about 15-20% of the text (and several characters). Again, that's his prerogative, and plenty of older texts are highly cut (probably 20% of Hamlet is missing from most performances); still, something that is essential about Webster has been lost in the process. The very obssessiveness of the playwright's intense sexual disgust - indeed, his horror at the natural world in general - is part of what you could call his creepy grandeur. Take the following lines on an old woman's make-up:

One would suspect it for a shop of witchcraft,
To find in it the fat of serpents, spawn of snakes, Jews' spittle,
And their young childrens' ordure; and all these for the face.
I would sooner eat a dead pigeon, taken from the soles of the feet
Of one sick of the plague, than kiss one of you fasting . . .
I do wonder you do not loathe yourselves.
Observe my meditation now:
What thing is in this outward form of man
To be belov'd? We account it ominous,
If nature do produce a colt, or lamb,
A fawn, or goat, in any limb resembling
A man, and fly from't as a prodigy.
Man stands amaz'd to see his deformity
In any other creature but himself.
But in our own flesh, though we bear diseases
Which have their true names only ta'en from beasts,
As the most ulcerous wolf and swinish measle;
Though we are eaten up of lice and worms,
And though continually we bear about us
A rotten and dead body, we delight
To hide it in rich tissue; all our fear,
Nay all our terror, is, lest our physician
Should put us in the ground, to be made sweet.

Whoa. That's quite a fantasia on face-powder, isn't it. Gammons cuts most of these lines (indeed, he's eliminated the character the speech is directed to), but to me they cut to the quick of Webster, and without them, or at least the sick force behind them, The Duchess feels hollowed out, like some Mannikin of Malfi. Indeed, the chilly fashion-show feel of Gammons' production (it takes place on a kind of catwalk) undercuts - actually, contradicts - Webster's basic atmosphere. This show always looks gorgeous, even glamorous; watching it, you think of Giorgio Armani, not about eating dead pigeons and feces. And it's hard to deny that a production of Webster should slowly suffocate us in a claustrophobic mingling of Eros and Thanatos - one that finds its end, as per the speech above, in feeling our own flesh eaten by worms in the confines of the grave. But Gammons keeps us diverted instead with an airy, if icy, decadence that's relentlessly cool, not stiflingly hot, and well - sometimes a bit silly.

Indeed, the production often edges toward burlesque, with all the big wigs and high heels, and Jennie Israel's stolid, almost-too-dignified Duchess. Sometimes, in fact, it goes right over the edge. The famous madhouse scene, in which the Duchess is all but buried alive with lunatics, is here enacted by two hot young things in their underwear, trying to terrify the Duchess with sock puppets (above left). Let's just say that's not quite as disturbing a vision as one has been led to expect by Webster's language; her death is likewise unimpressive (she's supposed to be strangled, but here is somehow metaphorically pulled apart - another thematically inaccurate image). And with its white-on-white, essentially French (rather than Italian) décor, and its perpetually slamming doors, the show sometimes feels like a nasty episode from Molière, or even Feydeau (occasionally I got the impression this was intentional, but any such parallel strikes me as specious). And the 2001-meets-Yves-St.-Laurent feel was only underlined by the talented David Adelberg's ongoing light show, which becomes almost distracting in its myriad effects. Was there a single dramatic moment without its own light cue? If so, I missed it. And sometimes less is more.

But if the actors often have to fight with the design for our attention (at left), a few nevertheless manage to make their mark. Jennie Israel I think is simply miscast as the Duchess; she's neither vulnerable enough, nor frankly young enough, to suggest, as Webster intends her to, that innocent sensuality is just another blandishment of corruption and Death. Jason Bowen does a little better by her noble beloved, Antonio, but the usually reliable Joel Colodner only strikes a few sparks as the evil Cardinal, and Bill Barclay is fun but inadequate as the scheming Bosola, who undoes, but then avenges, the Duchess. Bosola is in effect the moral center of the play, and Webster's factotum; his awakening to justice is also the "hinge" that gets us over the dramaturgical hump of the Duchess's fourth-act murder. And Barclay just doesn't bring the required depth to the role; he's a rascal with second thoughts, but little more.

Still, there are two performances to savor here. Marya Lowry brings some sense of real tragedy to the supporting role of Cariola (alas, in a second role she's forced to play at giving blow jobs!). And Michael Forden Walker, often the most interesting actor at Actors' Shakespeare, seems to have a touch of the real Webster in his soul, and brings a committed vitality to both the incestuous cruelty of the Duchess's brother, and his eventual breakdown and delusion that he's a werewolf. Praise should also go to Cameron Willard's eerie, if overloud, sound design - indeed, the soundscape often was the only thing cluing us in to the actual tenor of the play. I guess Mr. Willard was under the impression that if the Actors' Shakespeare Project was going to do John Webster, they were actually going to do John Webster.

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