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BWW Reviews: We Happy Few's Revival of THE DUCHESS OF MALFI Decries Oppression of Women

We Happy Few Productions has once again brought its signature commitment to enlivening classic theatre through bare-bones, ensemble storytelling to this year's Capital Fringe Festival.

Happily, they have re-energized a 90-minute version of the Jacobean drama, THE DUCHESS OF MALFI by John Webster, and placed its prescient outrage at the subordination and persecution of women before a 21st century audience still battling this oldest of injustices.

The ensemble's nimble, balanced cast brings the story of the Duchess, played with clarity and passion by Lindsey D. Snyder, to the fore. In Webster's world 400 years ago, women--even royal women--possessed no real social or legal agency over their property, sexuality, or affairs of the heart; the patriarchy----incisively represented here by the Duchess' two brothers, bore ruthless control over all. In a biting exposé worthy of today's most unflinching investigative reporters, Webster represents the ruling patriarchy in the form of the Duchess' brothers, the fornicating Cardinal--played with sinister smuttiness by Matthew Pauli, and the manic, manipulative ruling politician, Ferdinand--played with cunning conviction by Brit Herring. Into this dual orbit of fraternal control comes the assassin, Bosola--played with an increasingly existential and tormented ambivalence by Rafael Untalan--who is tasked with crushing the Duchess for her defiance.

And the Duchess' crime? Childless and recently widowed, she commits the unpardonable sin in this rigid, classist, and sexually repressive Jacobean aristocracy, of falling in love with and informally marrying (and thus sharing her inheritance with) Antonio, a handsome steward well beneath her station. Authentically played by Drew Kopas, Antonio and the Duchess consummate their forbidden marriage, and the Duchess soon gives birth to twins---a boy and a girl. Supported by the Duchess' defiantly loyal attendant Cariola--played with focused intensity by Gwen Grastorf--this tabooed family basks, for an all-too-brief moment, in the simple joy of cloistered domesticity. Soon, however, through a series of plot twists and turns, this domestic tranquility is shattered by the Duchess' brothers who are outraged both that she had defied their prohibition against remarrying and by her wantonness in coupling beneath their aristocratic station.

The brothers' vengeful plot against their sister cascades forward to a tragic end rendered surrealistically modern by the prominence on today's world stage of this self same oppressive patriarchy, fueled as it is by fundamental religiosity of all sorts, and a visceral fear of female sexuality. In THE DUCHESS OF MALFI we see the same horrific brutality of honor killings, bride burnings, schoolgirl abductions, and the prolific trafficking in the West and across the globe in young girls (and boys) and women throughout our ostensibly more "civilized" modern era.

Ms. Snyder fills the Duchess with the fire of dissent and a depth of outrage that touches us and moves us and beckons us toward action in our own world. The affection and devotion too of Cariola's to her mistress and the young daughter in her charge, and the defiance of Cariola's human will to survive and endure touches us as well. The moments on stage between these two women are among the production's most effective. Rounding out the play's portrayal of women, Ms. Grastorf also plays Julia, the Cardinal's concubine; she portrays Julia as a sexual outlaw and societal insurgent, and we see in Julia the future rebellion of a sexualized modern age.

Filling out the versatile ensemble and portraying multiple roles with conviction are Harlan Work and Jonathan Lee Taylor, who bring a measured precision and nuance to their performances. Crisply directed by Paul Reisman, the production features simple, elegant, grey-scale costumes by Lynly Sauders (costume consultant), effective sound design by Robert Pike, setting and props by Dean Leong (set consultant) and Kiernan McGowan (props acquisition), respectively, and cogent fight choreography by Casey Kaleba. The inventive, often excitingly low-tech lighting design is by Jason Aufdem-Brinke.

Bravo to We Happy Few Productions for reviving (and compressing) this rarely performed Jacobean gem, and reminding us that "What's past is prologue." In his one moment of filial tenderness, Ferdinand says to his sister the Duchess:

Upon a time Reputation, Love, and Death,
Would travel o'er the world; and it was concluded
That they should part, and take three several ways.
Death told them, they should find him in great battles,
Or cities plagu'd with plagues: Love gives them counsel
To inquire for him 'mongst unambitious shepherds,
Where dowries were not talk'd of, and sometimes
'Mongst quiet kindred that had nothing left
By their dead parents: "Stay,' quoth Reputation,
'Do not forsake me; for it is my nature,
If once I part from any man I meet,
I am never found again.' And so for you:
You have shook hands with Reputation,
And made him invisible.

Indeed, the bloody tyranny of "reputation" still rules today. I am reminded of President Jimmy Carter's recent declaration that he has "become convinced that the most serious and unaddressed worldwide challenge is the deprivation and abuse of women and girls, largely caused by a false interpretation of carefully selected religious texts and a growing tolerance of violence and warfare,"

THE DUCHESS OF MALFI lends its 400-year-old voice as well to this grim proclamation.

At Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint (NOTE the change of venue from Source to Flashpoint), 916 G Street NW
Washington, DC 20001

Remaining Performances:
WED, 7/16 at 7:30 PM
SAT 7/19 2:00 PM
SUN 7/20 2:00 PM
SUN 7/20 7:00 PM
MON 7/21 7:30 PM
WED 7/23 7:30 PM

Running time: 90 minutes
Recommended for ages 13 and up

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