I was not entirely sure what to expect from "The Duchess of Malfi". This was a play written by John Webster and first performed in 1614, billed as a "supreme tragedy of blood." It has had several stagings through the years, with stars like Peggy Ashcroft, Judy Dench, and Helen Mirren all having a turn with the title role. With a tagline as intriguing as "A poetry of evil, violence and death wish," how can I resist?
The story is about the Duchess of Malfi, a young widow who falls in love with and secretly marries a commoner named Antonio, against the extreme objections of her two brothers, her twin Ferdinand and the Cardinal. The brothers hire an ex-convict named Borsola to spy on her, make her mad and eventually to execute her. Will their evil plot proceed as planned?
I have to admit the story of the play was not too easy to get into in the first scenes because of the language used. I did not really know what was going on exactly until the scene where Borsola gives the Duchess the plums. The English used was rather archaic in phrasing and the actors were over-enunciating their lines. That said, I am really impressed though with the perfect memorization of those wordy lines by the whole cast! Despite the kilometric dialogues, I could not recall anyone with a significant buckle.
The best performance in the whole show is by Richard Cunanan, hands down. His character might have been the anti-hero, but ironically, it was the one we can relate to the most. This is because Borsola appeared to be the only sane character in the midst of this madhouse. Cunanan is cool. He is witty. He did not attempt a strange accent. His subtlety sets him apart. I could not imagine how his alternates Neil Ryan Sese or George de Jesus III can do this role any better.
Also standing out was Martha Comia as the lustful Julia. She is pretty and delightful in this role that got better with every scene she was in. Comia's acting was very natural and refreshing, despite being a very daring role. Alternates for this role are Issa Litton and Christelle Manuel.
Adriana Agcaoili had a physical disconnect with how I imagined the Duchess of Malfi would look like, despite her beautiful costumes. She was able to transcend that uneven first half with a stronger, more stirring performance in the second half. Banaue Miclat and Liza Dino also alternate in this central role.
Menggie Cobarrubias was strangely stiff as the Cardinal. I was expecting more from him since he is the only actor I know in the cast. But that maybe because of the way the character was written, or maybe the red robes did not fit him too well. Brian Tibayan alternates in this role.
Jacques Borlaza really goes over-the-top with his acting here. You really cannot understand his character and why Borlaza was overacting that way, until the character totally goes bonkers later in the show. The abrupt way his character developed negatively affected my appreciation for his acting, and that is not his fault. Amazing that he appears to have no alternate for the Filipino version.
Carlo Tarobal did not strike me as the correct choice for the role of Antonio. He had no chemistry with Agcaoili. It was not clear why she likes him and would fight for her love of him despite family resistance. Curious how his alternate Dax Alejandro will tackle this role.
Arvin Trinidad tended to overact as Antonio's friend Delio. At times, the way he delivers his dialogue is not too clear. His character ended the whole play with a short monologue and I think he did not pull it off too well. He was even upstaged by the little boy he shared that final scene with. Delio alternates are Brian Arda and Mark Dalacat.
Despite all these little comments about acting, overall, the play was quite compelling, especially the second half. Since it deals with madness and death, there are many disturbing and unsettling images on that stage which will shock the audience. The costumes and production design look very good. For me though, it was the really the nuanced performance of Richard Cunanan as Borsola that bound this whole show together and carried it to its ultimate success.
"The Duchess of Malfi" is the second offering of Dulaang UP's 38th Theater Season. It is being staged both in the original English, as well as in Tagalog as translated by Allan Palileo (who also translated past Dulaang UP hits "Mary Stuart" and "The Seagull". Congratulations to the cast and crew of Dulaang UP and revered Director Tony Mabesa for yet another success!
"The Duchess of Malfi" opened last September 11, and runs at the Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater at the Palma Hall, for one more week. English version will be staged on September 24, 25, 26 and 27, all at 7 pm. Filipino version will be staged on September 28 and 29, shows at 10 am and 3 pm. Tickets at P350. For information, the Dulaang UP Office numbers are 9261349 and 4337840.