Shakespeare will always find an audience, but his contemporary, John Webster, is another matter. The titles of the 17th-Century British playwright's dark and often lurid dramas vaguely register in people's minds, but few have read them, and fewer still have actually seen a production.
This is not surprising, considering that the opportunities to do so are few, and reasons to avoid them are many. Prime among them: fears that the plays will be too long, the language will be too difficult to understand, the style beyond the reach of today's actors.
The new production of Webster's "The Duchess of Malfi" by the Glendale-based troupe A Noise Within, which opens tomorrow night, should answer all of those objections.
The actors are classically trained. The language "is less dense than a lot of Shakespeare," noted director Sabin Epstein.
And as for length, Epstein has created a streamlined version of the 1614 drama, cutting one-quarter to one-third of the dialogue and eliminating all but the play's seven central characters. The result is an intermission-less one hour and 45 minutes.
"I felt that one way to really look at the play is to focus in on the seven central characters of the story, so that it is very fluid, very fast, very cinematic," said Epstein, who directed the company's critically acclaimed production of William Congreve's "The Way of the World" last spring. "Thus I've cut every secondary plot, and I'm focusing in on the major through-lines of the piece.
"Every scene we're doing, for the most part, is intact," he said. "The scenes that I've chosen to do remain pretty much as they were written. But I've cut a lot in the play that doesn't mean very much to us: details about court life, topical references."
This stripped-down approach also applies to the production. "We did 'The Way of the World' with six chairs and one table," he recalled. "We're doing 'Duchess' with one stool, which we get rid of about a third of the way through.
"There are no safety nets" with such a minimalist approach, Epstein admitted. "It puts all the responsibility on the actors. They're terrified of it, and so am I. But it's got to be terrifying. Otherwise, it's not really fun to do."
Reluctant theatergoers' other probable objection to seeing the work--that it can't possibly have any contemporary relevance--is pretty well shattered by a recitation of the plot. The title character is a widow who chooses to marry a man who is considered her social inferior. This infuriates her two brothers, one of whom is a prominent religious leader. The result is a power struggle in which two powerful men battle against a woman who has dared to make her own choices and live her life the way she sees fit.
"It's about being a woman in a man's world, and the nature of tyranny and individual responsibility," said Epstein. "She chooses to go against society, to disregard it by marrying into a lower class. She is seen as a rebel and a villain for doing that. It's only later that her true nature is revealed: of this radiant, virtuous, moral being, the only light in this black world."
Besides the obvious theme of sexual politics, A Noise Within's co-artistic director Geoff Elliott feels that several elements of the play resonate today. One, he noted, parallels the main theme of Moliere's "Tartuffe," which is running in repertory with "Malfi."
"There's greed in high office, and hiding behind religion to achieve your human desires," he noted. "Using God as a front. You don't have to think long to come up with several names of people who could fit that description today."
Where and When What: "The Duchess of Malfi." Location: A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Hours: The play previews at 8 tonight and officially opens at 8 p.m. tomorrow. It runs in repertory with Shakespeare's "Coriolanus" and Moliere's "Tartuffe" through Dec. 19. Price: $14, $20 for opening night. Call: (818) 753-7750.