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The Duchess of Malfi is given a contemporary retelling - Open Circle Theater's efforts have mixed results
The Duchess of Malfi is given a contemporary retelling - Open Circle Theater's efforts have mixed results
by Jacob Clark - SGN A&E Writer

A macabre Jacobean tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, is receiving a streamlined treatment by Open Circle Theater. The play has been edited to a scant two hours by director John Kaufmann, and the archaic language has been given contemporary translation by Open Circle's Artistic Director, Ron Sandahl.

The edition preserves the spine of the play, which tells the story of the widowed Duchess, who marries beneath her station, and the chaos that ensues as her brothers, Duke Ferdinand and The Cardinal, vie for power and revenge. By the end of the play, everyone is dead, some in sword fights, others by bizarre means, such as a poisoned bible.

Eerie contemporary pre-show music sets a tone that promises anything might happen in the production. Indeed, in the first two scenes, director Kaufmann freezes the central characters in mid-gesture, while servants reveal them in exposition. Unfortunately, these early, dazzling innovations give way to a traditional read of the rest of the play, which only serves to highlight the inexperience of many in the cast.

The acting is a mixed bag, with several actors giving excellent performances. Samara Lerman creates a youthful lusty heroine in the role of the Duchess, drawing her intended, Antonio, into a common law marriage. Lerman's Duchess is a bright, vibrant participant in Renaissance Italy, and her destruction creates fear and pity in the spectator, which is the effect of tragedy. Aaron Allshouse delivers the evil Bosola in a cunning performance that makes sense of the character's reversals in the latter scenes of the play. Chris MacDonald essays the madness of Duke Ferdinand in a visceral, deeply felt performance that is both magnetic and frightening.

Gender-bending, women playing men's roles, a technique that worked so well in A Clockwork Orange: Remixed, is used for several characters.

The blazing, colorful costumes seem to have more in common with Commedia dell'Arte than Italian Renaissance, and do nothing to elevate the actors to tragedy.

The stage fighting in the second act is ill-timed and much of it doesn't work. At one point, a character wraps a hand around the blade of a sword, the same sword that has already mortally wounded several characters, yet no harm comes to the hand that holds the blade.

This production is important for academic reasons, as the play rarely gets a good performance, due to its length and a number of banal sub-plots. The sub-plots have been excised or condensed in this Open Circle production, and the play emerges with more punch, as the central action is emphasized.

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