Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Malcontent by John Marston at the American Shakespeare Center


Revenge is a popular topic upon the stage, and it was very popular in Renaissance theater.   Revenge plays fall into two types.   The "bloody" with many deaths, such as Hamlet and Titus Andronicus and the "redemptive" in such plays as The Tempest.    The Malcontent is a rich blend of both.   There is the threat of deaths, deserved and undeserved, yet there is a unexpectedly rewarding ending for the plotters in this tale.

Duke Altofronto (Benjamin Curns) has been overthrown in a plot contrived by Mendoza (John Harrell), a minion of Aurelia (Sarah Fallon).   Pietro Jacomo (Jeremy West) has been appointed Duke of Genoa in Altofronto's place and married Aurelia.   Altofronto's wife, Maria (Miriam Donald) is thrown in prison.  Aurelia is cuckolding Pietro with Mendoza.  Altofronto disguises himself as Malevole, the Malcontent and plots the downfall of them all, but especially Mendoza.    Mendoza, however, is his equal in wit and contrivance and manages to weave a plot in which he gets himself named the heir of Pietro.   There is corruption everywhere throughout Pietro's court and Malevole comments on it to the Duke's face and in deliciously juicy soliloquies to the audience.    Malevole plots against Mendoza.  Mendoza eludes entrapment and manipulates Aurelia and Pietro.   The plot weaves and flows to a grand masque in which all is revealed and those who have wronged Altofronto and Maria are punished.

Benjamin Curns is a forceful Altofronto/Malevole.  Mr. Curns commands the audience's attention and makes us wonder where his revenge will take us next.   He is equally matched by the slithering John Harrell's Mendoza.  As with Mr. Curns, Mr. Harrell's Mendoza is so good at turning the tables that the audience wonders what his outrageous audacity will lead to as well.   Jeremy West balances his Pietro's uneasiness upon the throne and his jealous streak when it comes to his wife.   Sarah Fallon plays a sensuous, oh let's be real here, slut, but revels in Aurelia's insecurities.   As the pandress, Maquerelle, Alison Glenzer is outrageously bold and brassy.   As the ladies of the court she encourages in their infidelities, Miriam Donald is a ditzy confection and Jeremiah Davis is a flirtatious plum. Paul Jannise is a perfect fop as  Bilioso,  as he flits between the courtly factions as they wax and wane in influence.  Tyler Moss, as the plainspoken fool Passarello comments on the court with biting wit.

The version of The Malcontent's script being performed at the Blackfriars contains an Induction.   It is a commentary by and on the leading actors and wonderfully transitions the play from the American Shakespeare Center's traditional curtain speech into the play itself.

This is a deliciously rich script and the actors of the American Shakespeare Center's Actors Renaissance Season have embraced its complexities producing a spellbinding production on the Blackfriars stage.   During the Actors Renaissance Season the productions are rehearsed in a matter of days.   There are no directors or designers and costumes and props are taken from existing stock.    Yet, this is a cohesive marvel.   The costuming looks like it was planned by a designer with most of it a recreation of an late 17th or 18th century court.   (there is one anachronism in Patrick Midgley's costuming for Ferneze - but it works for the character and creates some nice "eye candy" for the ladies in the audience).   Dancing and stage combat appear choreographed with weeks of rehearsal rather than a matter of days. Without a director, the actors have come together with a unity that rivals productions directed by the acclaimed masters of stagecraft today.     The Thespian would put The Malcontent against any million dollar designed production on an classical theater company stage today and it would surpass them in quality.

The Malcontent by John Marston, will be presented as part of the Actors Renaissance Season at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia in repertoire with William Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors and Henry VI, Part 3, Look About You, author unknown and Thomas Middleton's A Trick to Catch the Old One through April 2, 2011.   For tickets and performance information please visit

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