March 25th, 2010

La Loge

The Duchess of Malfi

Let us praise the Red Bull Theater Company.  They specialize in plays "of heightened language," modern and classic, with special attention to the black velvet, blood-spattered Jacobean repertoire of late Shakespeare, Webster, and Middleton.  They exist on a shoestring and they employ very good actors, and their productions are always imaginative and thoughtful.  As is the current production of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi.

I was looking forward to seeing this production more than somewhat.  I wrote my Masters thesis on Webster and Middleton, and The Duchess of Malfi had a whole chapter to itself, mad-house scene, mad brothers, poisoned book, ghostly echo and all.  I have a dim recollection of having seen it once before, years ago--in London?  In Boston?--but it is not a play that is produced even as often as Middleton's The Changeling, which I think is a weaker play.  Perhaps it is the Grand Guignol of the plot; perhaps it is the thorniness of the language.  Perhaps it is the existential despair of every character except the Duchess, who manages to retain her dignity and her sanity even when surrounded by howling madmen and the knowledge that her brothers would rather see her degraded and dead than happily married.  She dies in hope of Heaven.  The other characters know themselves headed, at best, for Hell, at worst, they know not where.  In any case, it's a play that stands and falls on the dignity of its Duchess, the deliciousness of her villainous brothers, and the subtlety of the most complex character in the play, the veteran soldier Bosola, who discovers repentance too late and much too uselessly.

There were four of us in our theatre party and opinions were mixed.  Ellen didn't like the Duchess.  Good actress, coherent reading of the part, a real person there, but too modern, too hard, too cold--all strength, she said, no passion.  Our friend Dan and vschanoes liked her very well indeed, finding the hardness and chill a function of the world she lived in and appropriate to a modern-dress setting and ambiance.  I floated somewhere in the middle.  I liked how Christine Rouner (who we saw in Coram Boy a while back) brought out the Duchess's wry sense of humor and maintained her dignity through thick and thin without being rigid about it.  I didn't quite believe her relationship with Antonio, but that may have been the fault of the chemistry-free Matthew Greer, who delivered his lines with an unnecessary vigor that made me suspect he wasn't quite sure what they meant.  And I hated, hated, hated the madhouse scene, in which a clutch of actors dressed like Absolute Evil's minions in Time Bandits perform a dry-land synchronized swimming routine while the Duchess croons "I Love You More Than Yesterday" into a red mic that descends from the ceiling.  I'm sorry, but that Duchess would never have had that hallucination in a million years, no matter how strung-out and disoriented and agonized she was.  Madness makes you more yourself, not somebody from another universe.

But I digress.

The Evil Brothers were very good indeed, although Gareth Saxe as Ferdinand started at such a high level of scene-chewery that he had almost nowhere to go once he'd gone fully lycanthropic.  Also, he slurred his words, which is fatal with Webster.  Luckily, he was beautifully bony and angular and young Roger Rees-like, so I hardly cared.  Patrick Page (Henry VIII in last year's A Man For All Seasons) has the most beautiful voice, and just wrapped it around the Cardinal's unctuous hypocrisy like a velvet cloak over a rotting bone.  He was truly shiversome, and I would have given him a more dignified death than the writhing, Grand Guignol one he got, but then I'm not really a very good ironist.  Bosola was played by the versatile Matthew Rauch, who has been in all of Red Bull's productions to date, and always hands in an energetic, subtle, intelligent performance with every consonant, elision, nuance, and emotion fully articulated and felt.  There's always a question, in Duchess, whose tragedy this is, hers or Bosola's, and I'd say here, the honors were pretty much even.

As for the production itself--well, anybody who wants a few yards of pink-scarlet polyester with gold brocading is going to be out of luck, since the set designer must have bought every square inch to be found in New York to wrap and drape not only the backdrop and wings, but to carpet the stage and make chair-cozies for the two metal folding chairs that were all the Duchess's furniture.  It was eye-catching, certainly, and picked up the Cardinal's red buttons and beretta and the red stones on the Duchess's white dress very nicely.  The second act was done in a bare, iron framework with a shower curtain on one side against which the brains of the Duchess's infants were dashed out in a scene that made everyone wince and the lady behind me go "tsk, tsk, tsk" rather loudly.  What with the infants and the gory deaths of Bosola, Ferdinand, Antonio, and the Cardinal, I'm not surprised that Red Bull's fund-raising literature last year included a rather high figure for the purchase of stage blood.  Webster, I suspect, would have loved it.  At the end of the day, though, I found myself dry-eyed and interested in discussion rather than harrowed and mute.  Which is not a bad thing, certainly.  But I'd hoped for something more.

Writing redhead

Progress Report

I have spent the last month doing my level best to get back into The Freedom Maze, the novel that's due to Small Beer Press on the first of June.  This is a book I began many years ago and have put through many iterations, none of them quite satisfactory.  This is my last chance to Get It Right, on many levels, and the days are ticking by.  I have Taken Advice from many beta readers, gone through the whole book and done some restructuring and cutting of cute scenes that went nowhere, made copious notes on what I needed to do and where.  And then I froze solid.

Oh, I kept writing.  Mostly Chapter 1, over and over, trying to find the right voice and the right details to establish my heroine and her world and keep a reader's interest in a chapter that consists mostly of exposition and traveling music and not a lot--ok, not a trace--of actual action.  It was a craft question, and one I've answered before, but never for a book so thoroughly mired in my own past.  Thus, the sense of plowing frozen ground with a toothpick, with attendant crises of confidence and crabbiness.

Last week, after many over-lunch discussions with Ellen and cups of Matcha Green Tea Latte (unsweetened), I finally found a voice that didn't suck, and a structure that allowed me forward movement.  Yesterday, I nailed down a usable and useful, reasonably coherent draft of the new Chapter 1.  I also made considerable inroads into Chapter 2 (by dint of having moved part of Chapter 1 into it, but hey, any port in a storm).  And Chapter 3, in which The Plot Begins To Thicken, is not as dire as the first two.  So it's beginning to look as if I don't have to skip town without leaving a forwarding address after all.  I'm not out of the woods yet (there are 23 chapters in this puppy, and some of them are suckier than others), but you may paint me cautiously optimistic. 

And now I gotta go start beating my head against Chapter 2.

I'll let you know how it's going.  I may even look into one of those progress things, if I can find one that works in chapters instead of word count.  Because, for revisions, word count means bupkus.