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The Malcontent

A Thriller Where Redemption
Trumps Revenge

By John Marston
American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va.
Saturday, January 29, 2011, L–6&7 (left box)
Actors' Renaissance Season

This was our first exposure to this play—or any play by John Marston—and it was the playwright himself who proved the star of this production. With biting wit, insightfully incisive lines, and sharply satirical sermons on the natures of men and women, The Malcontent is nevertheless an edge-of-the-seat potboiler in which the overriding theme is redemption. That last fact is what gives it such a twist among Elizabethan revenge plays.

Many of the characters behave despicably or stupidly during the course of the play, but each in turn experiences forgiveness at the hands of the ones they wronged. At the climax (spoiler alert!), all the characters are gathered on stage during a masque, many with knives drawn. But whereas Middleton, Kydd, or even Shakespeare, would have strewn the bodies of most or all of the characters about the stage in a dance of death, Marston gives every one of his characters a reprieve and allows them to live, including the double-crossing, double-usurping, villainest villain of them all, Mendoza (played with slimy relish by John Harrell).

Even the old flatterer Bilioso is allowed to live, though I would have been inclined to at least banish him: he was so grating and was sure to continue being an eye-roll-inducing pain long after the play. This is a tribute to the young actor playing him, Paul Jannise, though he was just one standout performance by this incredibly solid ensemble. On just a few days of non-directed rehearsing per the standards of the ASC's Actors Renaissance Season, this cast delivered all the nuances of this convolutedly plotted play to a novice audience and earned an appreciative response.

Benjamin Curns did the heaviest lifting as Giovanni Altofronto, disguised as Malevole, the title character. He stage-managed the plot, played the allowed fool and the angry, revenge-seeking usurped duke as extreme shadings of one character, and guided the audience along the way. Scholars may compare him in style and motivation to Hamlet, but the only apt comparison is how the actor playing either part has to get through a spectrum-wide journey of introspection while engaged in political maneuvering and speaking Elizabethan verse. If that actor isn't on top of his or her game from start to end, the play fails. This play, of course, succeeded.

Another performance that caught our eye was that of Jeremy West as the reigning duke and later disguised as a hermit: good-humored yet too-quick-to-wrath as a duke, melting from indignation to compassion toward his wife as the hermit.

This being the ASC—and especially this being the Actors' Renaissance Season when the inmates take over the institution—another of the production's highlights had nothing to do with Marston. It was the unplugged presentation of the Michael Jackson hit “Billy Jean” led by crazy man Tyler Moss at the end of the intermission. While the rest of the troupe provided the song's vocal gymnastics and laid down a heavy bass line and beat with guitar picking, Moss moved from gallery to stage and finished the song with vintage Jackson steps. At audience prodding, he performed an encore flourish after the second half of the play had already started.

Eric Minton
January 31, 2011

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