The Duchess of Malfi- Vile Passeist Theatre

by Lucy Allen

(from left to right) Kyle McDonald, Irena Huljak, and Luke Marty in Duchess of Malfi 2009


We all too often hear of the greatness of Shakespeare’s writing, but we rarely hear about the playwrights who had the misfortune of being his contemporaries.  This is a problem that Vile Passeist Theatre seeks to remedy by staging these other early modern plays.  The recent result is a somewhat uneven yet engaging interpretation of The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster, now playing at the Walmer Centre Theatre.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, The Duchess of Malfi tells the story of a recently widowed Duchess (Irena Huljak) who, against her brothers’ wishes, falls in love with and marries a man of lower class.  This of course provokes the brothers to seek punishment for her so-called sins, and the tragedy unfolds as most tragedies of the time do.
Having never read the script, I was curious to see if my knowledge of Shakespearean text would be enough to help me understand the unfamiliar play.  The result is a resounding “sort of” but luckily the cast do a fairly good job getting the gist of a scene across.
Like many modern performances of old texts, The Duchess of Malfi has been set during a more contemporary time period, in this case the 20th century, though it was unclear to me at exactly what point.  Despite a couple of unfortunate costume choices (why one character suddenly changed into Daisy Duke’s clothes I’ll never know), the story blends in well to the time period.
The modern costuming is combined with more archaic lighting and set, which is meant to provide most of the ambience and atmosphere.  Using candles, dim lighting and sometimes nothing but flashlights, this is supposed to give the play a more early modern feel to it.  At times, it’s effective, such as with a frantic scene involving flashlights.  At others though my frustration at trying to make out actors overwhelmed my ability to enjoy a candlelit stage.
When great emotional turmoil was required, Irena Huljak stands out as the title character and captures her struggle with her inner demons effectively.  The first act, unfortunately, seemed a little shaky for her and it wasn’t until the second act that she seemed to gain momentum and embrace the character fully.  The other stand-out was Kyle McDonald as what I can only describe as the anti-villain Bosolo, who commanded the stage with a world weary yet menacing air.
For the most part, the rest of the cast is evenly matched, such as Lesley Robertson as the loyal Cariola or Noam Lior as the hypocritical Cardinal.  Unfortunately, the few weak supporting players became distracting in their bland delivery and lack of connection with the text, dragging the show out unnecessarily longer than it needed to be.
Another distracting element came in the form of the dances, particularly one involving the mad men which had them pointlessly go from well, being mad, to a tidily choreographed dance number that seemed entirely out of character with the rest of the show.
The Duchess of Malfi is known as a bizarre, violent play, and a difficult endeavour to take on.  Vile Passeist Theatre is a new company, and its first foray into early modern drama tries valiantly to capture the complex world of the Duchess.  But while having a few intense and tender moments, it ends up falling short of fulfilling its potential.

The Duchess of Malfi is playing at Walmer Centre Theatre (188 Lowther Avenue) until August 29, 2009
– Shows run Tuesday-Saturday at 7:30pm
– Ticket prices are $10 ($8-student/senior) Tues-Thurs. and $12 ($10-student/senior) Fri.-Sat.
– Tickets can be bought at the door (cash only).  To reserve tickets, please e-mail or call 647-828-7713.

Photograph provided by Vile Passeist Theatre