The Duchess of Malfi (Treehouse Shakespeare Ensemble) @ The Wharf Loft

‘I account this world a tedious theatre’ spat the Duchess (Rachel Louis). If Shakespeare’s Jacques imagines the whole world as a stage where people can play their parts, then Webster’s Duchess is tired of performing. In Treehouse Shakespeare Ensemble’s Duchess of Malfi, directed by Chase Fowler,the metaphor was literalized as an abandoned theatre came to life, its ghosts briefly possessing a troop of urban explorers who stumbled across the fragments of a story that ached to be retold. And in the company’s virtuosic doubling and embodiment, the craft of theatre-making itself became the means to keep memories alive. The theories of Marvin Carlson’s The Haunted Stage became flesh as objects accrued meaning, bodies accrued significance, and old stories insisted on being remembered. For all of the tedium that the Duchess felt in theatre, by the production’s end, when Louis’s explorer stressed ‘I am Duchess of Malfi still’, theatre’s own powers of resurrection were confirmed.

The urban explorers of the frame device broke into a theatre from the seventeenth or eighteenth century and were filled with the thrill of discovery as they revealed costumes, found an antique knife, clowned with an apothecary mask, and teased one another. One of the explorers (Cameron Taylor), who would later become Ferdinand, gave orders and helped set up a shot so that another of the group (Madison Mayberry), his camerawoman who would become Bosola, could position a camera. That camera became the audience of this tedious theatre, emphasizing the extent to which surveillance and scrutiny characterize the world of Malfi. Throughout, Bosola and Ferdinand moved the camera to suit their version of events, but that camera also became the record of their actions, and a device co-opted by others to tell their own stories. The directors couldn’t control this theatre; rather, this theatre told its own stories.

Simple signifiers transformed the five-person cast into a rotating ensemble of characters, established during the induction as the explorers came upon a book which began telling them the story of the play, words read out by the explorer (Jordan Willis) who would become Antonio, and words which prompted the mysterious turning-on of an ancient radio and the theatre’s lights. The objects towards which the explorers gravitated became the locus of their characters: Willis’s explorer was drawn to a pair of glasses that transformed her into the anxious, bookish Antonio; Louis to a red corset that allowed her to become the playful, coquettish Julia, before she put on a ring and was then dressed in a long skirt to create the upright, dignified Duchess; Mayberry to the long jacket that characterized the soldierly Bosola; George Durfee to the dangling red cross of the sinister Cardinal and the shoulder purse in which Delio carried his goods. Taylor found a fur-lined jacket that signified Ferdinand, but Ferdinand’s sycophants – a cane for the hunched, elderly Castruccio, a plumed hat for the effete Malateste – read as extensions of Ferdinand himself, allowing Taylor to suggest that Ferdinand was generating his own self-approval as he held extended conversations with himself, spinning between the lord and his flatterers. The precision of these theatrical gestures was necessary to the clarity of this complex production, but also fraught with symbolic meaning throughout, as characters became as disposable as props, and characters worked to maintain their own agency as it was taken away from them.

The contest over how far theatre was used to control and how far it had potential to liberate generated much of the production’s tension. When the Cardinal and Ferdinand confronted the Duchess with their orders not to marry again, they pulled forward the costume rack that served as the makeshift tiring house, and produced from it a black cloak in which Ferdinand dressed his sister; left alone with Cariola, she angrily tore off the cloak and threw it back into the rack. Ferdinand’s co-option of the tools of both the theatre and of the explorers’ technology to both dress and track his sister was subverted, though, by the Duchess’s own ability to choreograph her world. In the moving, sweet scene of her ‘proposal’ to Antonio, Louis’s Duchess gently, smilingly, coaxed Antonio through the gradual realization of what was being proposed to him. Willis’s Antonio seemed initially relaxed in the Duchess’s chambers, but moved away from her uncomfortably as she sat next to him on a chaise-longue; shortly after, he accepted her ring to heal his eye, but panicked as she pointedly stressed that this was her wedding ring. He knelt before her as she eased the ring onto his finger, buckling under the enormity of what was being offered to him. Where Ferdinand’s theatre was one of control and restraint, the Duchess’s was one of care, gradually encouraging Antonio to take on the new role she envisioned for him, physically easing his new identity onto him and constructing him as her husband.

Antonio and the Duchess’s story provided the emotional heart of the play. Emboldened by his (secret) new status, the previously wallflower-like Antonio became a more dominant presence, up to and including grabbing Bosola by the lapels during their night-time encounter when he felt the ex-soldier wasn’t showing appropriate respect (albeit the much larger Bosola laughed at the gesture). Along with the Duchess, Antonio now inhabited the chaise-longue confidently, pulling the Duchess onto his knees and enjoying being temporary master of the room, although he quickly resumed his subservient status when necessary to save them from Bosola’s intrusion. Later, as they fled in a carriage, the two brought onto the stage hangers with tiny clothes representing their small children, which they carefully hung up on the costume rack that became their carriage. Here, in their final moments together, the two were an equal couple, taking collective responsibility for the care of their children, and parting sadly but firmly from one another to save their family. This connection bled through into the frame device, where Willis and Louis’s characters were imagined as a couple; the play became a proxy for their own connection, their reliance upon one another.

The disruptive forces arraigned against them were formidable. Durfee’s Cardinal was a quiet, threatening presence, whose occasional eruptions into roars of fury made his controlled whispers all the more threatening. When alone with Julia, who knew how to perform for her sugar daddy, the Cardinal leaned from the chaise-longue to cup her face where she sat on the floor; facing away from him, Julia’s face betrayed her discomfort and the power that he wielded (though this was underscored comedically by Mayberry appearing as a nun who couldn’t bring herself to look at the Cardinal cavorting with his mistress so openly in his chambers). Taylor’s Ferdinand was the more overt threat; his sneering, snarling voice loved to hear itself, and – especially whenever left unchecked – ran on in ways that anticipated his later descent into animalistic madness. His confrontation with the Duchess in her chamber was especially intense as he held out a knife, handle first, inviting her to take it but also keeping the knife pointed at himself; his self-destructive tendencies were present even as he tried to destroy others. His ‘I will never see you more’ as he left the Duchess was clearly both deeply felt and against his own will, and that internal conflict was what made him so dangerous.

Bosola was what tied all of this together. The re-gendering of the soldier allowed for some fun insights. The retention of the Old Lady, realized here as a life-size puppet with cap and dress, manipulated by Taylor with a Muppet-quality comic voice, meant that Bosola got to give her misogynistic railing against make-up, to the shock of the anthropomorphized midwife. Bosola was a woman trying to get on in a man’s world, and the delight she took in derailing other women, whether laughing in the Old Lady’s face or feeding the Duchess apricots, manifested in her smug asides. But she was also as subject to patriarchal control as the other women; Ferdinand caressed her face while employing her, and spoke down to her. Bosola began the play fully and happily complicit in her actions, and took on the role of announcing act divisions to the camera, choreographing the play. By Act 5, however, when she looked at the camera, she cut herself off with a firm ‘No’. She had overseen the Duchess and Cariola’s brutal murders, performed representatively with ropes against which the actors strained while hooded executioners held them in place. She had cradled the dying Duchess on the chaise-longue, feeling the Duchess’s hand on her face as she whispered, with a final smile, ‘Mercy’. And she had watched as one of the executioners, at her order, had dropped the two hangers bearing children’s clothes representing the Duchess’s kids on the floor, a frankly shockingly brutal depiction of their murder. But it was Ferdinand’s frenzied refusal to take responsibility, his rejection of Bosola, that most fully turned her against her employers, making her realize that she was emphatically alone in this world and that trying to play the game according to the rules set by those in power was no way to win. Mayberry’s gradual cranking up of the frustration in Bosola’s soliloquies, marking the shift from her smiling cynicism to a more sincere, inward-facing guilt, charted the production’s shift in tone.

The somberness of Act 4 brought the implications of the violence to a head. The clothes rail was placed perpendicular to the stage’s horizontal axis, creating a barrier between the Duchess and Ferdinand in the dim light of her chambers. Ferdinand poked the severed hand through the rail for the Duchess to hold, waiting for the perfect moment to let go of it so that she responded to the sudden shift in weight, realizing what she was holding. This led to the Duchess’s largest expression of outrage as she screamed that she would go curse. Following this, the bold reworking of the madmen scene plunged the Duchess into a nightmare of hauntings. As the approach of the lunatics was announced, Durfee’s messenger began singing Billie Eilish’s ‘bury a friend’, and all of the cast apart from the Duchess broke out of their characters and slipped back into the frame narrative, choreographing a full dance routine around the Duchess, bewildered and controlled as a book was forced into her hands and she found herself singing the lyrics and being danced around by the macabre urban explorers. Spinning out of this surreal fantasy, the Duchess’s panicked cry of ‘Who am I?’ to Bosola communicated the extent of the gaslighting she had been subjected to, doubting her own sanity. The stoicism with which she then embraced her death enacted a reclamation of her identity, in defiance of those who wished to take it from her.

The bleakness of the Duchess’s fate was thrown into relief by comic and absurd touches that increased the audacity of the play’s crimes. Malateste, Castruccio, the Old Lady, and Pescara (Willis in red feathered hat and outstretched affected hand) became a kind of comic chorus representing the corruption of the state, their shocked reactions to the real-world events that cut across their comfortable lives showing the emptiness of their flattery. Bosola’s jokes were funny, but also acted as contrast to her growing disaffection with her paymasters. And in a beautiful tonal shift, the Duchess and Cariola got up from their deaths, laid aside their signifiers and those of the Duchess’s children, and then transformed into Pescara and the Doctor. Louis put on the plague mask and became a hunched, strained figure, who leaned into the audience’s faces to describe lycanthropy. Faced with the deranged Ferdinand, though – who pawed at his own shadow and thrashed around – the Doctor took off his mask, and Ferdinand was confronted with the face of his sister, giving him momentary clarity but also a focus for his violent action which resulted in him tossing the Doctor to one side of the room. The humbling of the Doctor contrasted neatly with the uprightness of the Duchess’s fleeting, echoic reappearance, the Duchess resurrected momentarily through contrast with the bodies that shared her outward appearance.

As the production entered its endgame, the Cardinal came back into focus, needing to think quickly to distract attention from Ferdinand’s madness, to talk Bosola out of holding him at knifepoint, and to deal with Julia – whose body, gagging out on the floor, echoed that of the Duchess. As the bodies began piling up, their signifiers were left on the stage, creating a growing pile of theatrical debris that stood for the play’s exorcised ghosts. But the framing device also started to reassert itself – Louis, all of her characters dead, now stood behind the camera, holding the book that had instigated this ghostly rehearsal, now watching those who had destroyed her multiple bodies destroy themselves. Against the Cardinal’s overt dominance of the stage, Bosola took to the edges, hiding behind dress forms and costume rack to prepare her assassinations. While failing initially – the bathetic stabbing of Antonio drawing a laugh as Bosola reflected on the accidents of the stage – Bosola’s brutal stabbing of the Cardinal’s neck initiated the final frenetic blood-letting, leaving Bosola, Ferdinand, and the Cardinal bleeding out on the floor and abandoning their signifiers for the appalled Pescara and Malateste to find. And the camera kept filming.

As Delio closed the book, the lights suddenly flickered out, and the stunned urban explorers found themselves back in the abandoned theatre. Where earlier they had encountered the artefacts of the theatre with jokes, mocking, and joy, now they tied the objects with reverence and sadness. They checked in with one another, helping bring one another out of their reveries, coming back to themselves in a beautiful reimagining of the end of the theatrical experience, the audience members rediscovering their own embodiment as they return to the ‘real’ world. But if the characters were now reduced back to the objects that had signified them, they still carried that meaning. Louis gently took up the Duchess’s skirt and wrapped it around the dress form; Willis placed Antonio’s glasses on its top, and then the two together draped a dustcloth over it and put the ring on top. Hesitatingly, Louis’s character turned to her lover, and spoke the words that had been fighting to get out – ‘I am Duchess of Malfi, still’. And the two ran into one another’s arms, the resurrected story living on in them in the present, the memories of theatre shaping the future.

This review was developed while working with Treehouse Shakespeare Ensemble through rehearsals, as part of a process of embedded criticism.

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