Director Woronicz turns tide with ‘The Tempest’ at Indiana University

By Joel Pierson, H-T Theater columnist

I have a soft spot in my heart for “The Tempest.” It’s William Shakespeare’s final play, his farewell performance, if you will, and it’s all about saying goodbye when you know the time has come. It features some classic plot devices from his comedies, but it’s not a laugh-out-loud romp. It features elements from his historical works, but it’s an outright fiction, rich with loyalty and betrayal, monsters and magic. This makes it unique and beautiful and special.

Our friends at the Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance know this, and they’ve asked visiting assistant professor Henry Woronicz to direct. Smart move, given his long tenure with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and numerous others. I selfishly wished that he would also take on the role of Prospero, but this is a student cast, and I respect that. The honor goes to third-year MFA actor Matthew Murry, in his thesis role. With Henry as his guide, I know it will be a winner.

“The Tempest” tells the story of Prospero, the overthrown duke of Milan, who is exiled to a mysterious island with his teenage daughter, Miranda. There he makes servants of a sprite named Ariel and a monster named Caliban, as he develops his talents for sorcery. When he learns that the very people who wronged him are on a ship near the island, he conjures a storm to run them aground and begin a very serviceable revenge upon them. Or so it was written.

“This is not your father’s ‘Tempest,’” says Woronicz, however. “We’re trying to make it very modern in some ways. It takes place in a world that Prospero has manipulated and created on this island with the help of the spirit Ariel.”


Ariels Emily Rozman, Athena Kopulos, and Courtney Relyea-Spivak

This production reimagines the island as a timeless world. The scenic design by MFA student Kevin Nelson makes use of hanging fabrics, allowing cast members to use aerial silks acrobatics to work their magic. (And if you’ve never seen an aerial silks performance, it’s worth the price of admission all by itself.) Visual projections designed by Reuben Lucas help bring the magic of Prospero and Ariel to life for the audience.

The director offers, “‘The Tempest’ is about a man who has removed himself from life and paid the price for it, losing his dukedom and finding his way back to humanity with his daughter. Ultimately it’s about forgiveness and redemption.”

Another unconventional aspect to the production involves the casting of the monstrous Caliban, to be played by MFA actor Ashley Dillard. Curiously enough, the role of Caliban — neither man nor woman — has almost always been played by male actors. Woronicz and Dillard are out to shake up that tradition, as the actress explains: “On the outside, Caliban is nothing like any of the characters I’ve ever played before, but on the inside he’s going through the same things as everyone else: he wants freedom, he wants love, he wants to feel safe.”

With a lush visual style and an original musical score composed by Jacobs School of Music student Paul Mortilla, “The Tempest” looks to be the latest in a long line of top-quality IU Shakespeare productions.

Contact Joel by sending an email to with “Pierson” in the subject line.

If you go

WHO: Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance

WHAT: “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday and Feb. 28, March 4; 2 p.m. March 4

WHERE: Ruth N. Halls Theatre, 275 N. Jordan Ave., Bloomington

TICKETS: $15-$25. Call 812-855-1103 or visit

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Tempestuous Personalities

Jfiles6By James Nelson

The cast of The Tempest has been living and breathing their characters for weeks. We checked in with them to see how they’ve gotten to know their characters, and pitched them a few super serious questions. Enjoy!

What’s your favorite line you get to say in the play?

Caleb Novell (Mariner, Islander): “All is lost!”

Tara Chiusano (Trinculo): “Thou liest!”

Reid Francis Henry (Gonzalo): “This Tunis sir, was Carthage.”

Matthew Murry (Prospero): “TEMPEST!”

How would you describe your character in two words?

Erin Logan (Miranda): Wild child!

Juan Mores Castillo (Sebastian): Narcissistic opportunist.

Devin May (Ferdinand): Reformed womanizer.

Reid Francis Henry (Gonzalo): Still talking.

If your character was a kind of pasta, what would they be?

Ashley Dillard (Caliban): Lasagna, layered with young scamels and pignuts.

Courtney Relyea-Spivack (Ariel): Angel hair.

Erin Logan (Miranda): Mac n’ cheese.

Matthew Murry (Prospero): Spicy TEMPEST puttanesca?

If your character started their own island country, what would they use as currency?

Tara Chiusano (Trinculo): Purple rocks.

Courtney Relyea-Spivack (Ariel): Clouds.

Caleb Novell (Mariner, Islander): Rum.

Nick Munson (Adrian): Not sure, but Gonzalo’s silence would be priceless.

If your character had to invent a new curse word that doesn’t exist yet, what would it be?

Athena Kopulos (Ariel): Fssssss (like a fire-ish noise).

Reid Francis Henry (Gonzalo): Moonlifter!

Devin May (Ferdinand): Crabtroll!

Juan Mares Castillo (Sebastian): Assenmouth (n.): someone who talks too much, often rambling about proceedings in which they have no knowledge.

Complete the sentence, as your character:”I’m so hungry I could eat a _____________”

Nick Munson (Adrian): Magical plate of island food!

Athena Kopulos (Ariel): Forest.

Ashley Dillard (Caliban): Literally anything but urchins. I’m scared of those.

Matthew Murry (Prospero): TEMPEST!

Complete the sentence, as your character:”When there’s smoke, there’s…”

Tara Chiusano (Trinculo): Fish smell.

Courtney Relyea-Spivack (Ariel): Wind to make it worse.

Erin Logan (Miranda): Probably my dad.

Matthew Murry (Prospero): A TEMPEST!

Complete the sentence, as your character:”A bird in the hand is worth…”

Ashley Dillard (Caliban): Eating.

Tara Chiusano (Trinculo): A butt of sack.

Caleb Novell (Mariner, Islander): Nothing to a mariner.

Matthew Murry (Prospero): TWO TEMPESTS!

If your character wrote their memoirs, what would the title be?

Athena Kopulos (Ariel): A Flame Contained

Tara Chiusano (Trinculo): The Lowest of the Low: Living the Life of a Jester

Devin May (Ferdinand): Riches to Rags: Losing All to Find Everything

Matthew Murry (Prospero): THE TEMPEST!

See our actors in action! Visit the show page for ticket information and to see what these folks look like without their makeup!

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From the H-T: Aerial Ariels!


The Ariels (Scenic Design: Kevin Nelson, Lighting Design: Matthew Wofford, Costume Design: Courtney Foxworthy)

Safety, Training, vital to performance in production of classic Shakespeare play

By Marcela Creps

As Henry Woronicz prepared to direct IU Theatre’s production of “The Tempest,” he decided to do something different.

He’s been in productions of the Shakespeare play, but this was his first time directing the show. In previous productions, the character of the spirit servant Ariel was “so earthbound” that he decide to work some magic into the show.

Woronicz knew Paulina Makowska, whose talents include aerial silks. And the idea was born to make Ariel aerial.

“We started talking about how we might do it,” Woronicz said.

There were limitations to what could be done. Due to the space and safety concerns, the three actresses cast as Ariel never get more than 48-inches off the ground. They also had to find actresses who would be able to go through the necessary training.

“It’s been fun to work on, and I think we added a little bit of extra magic to ‘The Tempest,’” Woronicz said.

First, the decision was made to cast three actresses who would work together to create Ariel. Woronicz said he wasn’t concerned about finding women who could handle the role’s special requirement.

“Most young actors these days are doing some kind of workout program,” Woronicz said. Also, the school is home to many dancers and actors with various skills that would translate well for the role.

Actress Courtney Relyea-Spivack said it was during callbacks that the plan to use silks was first mentioned. Not having much upper body strength, she was worried about how it would go.


Courtney Relyea-Spivak

“It was sheer adrenaline that sort of got me through that callback. I’d never climbed a rope before and I was like, all right, I’m going to do it. I just did it, and it was the hardest callback I’d ever had,” she said.

She had to do the opening scene from the show. Because she’d played the role before, she was able to recite the lines, although it was difficult to improve new skills on the silks while speaking Shakespeare.

“It was terrifying,” Relyea-Spivack said.

It didn’t make it easier when she fell off the silks during the audition. Luckily, the trainer caught her. Relyea-Spivack said there was concern that the fall would scare her off the role, but she reassured them she was up to the challenge.

Along with silk training, Relyea-Spivack said she works out about six to seven times a week to improve her upper body strength for the performance. As rehearsals have progressed, she’s become more comfortable in her ability to do the show.

“I didn’t expect myself to ever have upper body strength, and i have a pretty good core and knew i could at least rely on that. But once you’re up there, you’re really holding yourself up for the most part with your upper body. Then everything else is maneuvering these 30-foot long silks that once we got onto the stage they were lot more bungee-like and they were completely different material to get used to. So it’s been a constant training experience for my body, which I’m still sort of learning how to deal with,” she said.

However, she said Makowska has been great in helping the actresses work with their bodies. Because Makowska is certified in Active Release Technique, she is good at helping them deal with pain and teaching them how to adjust positions to make it easier.

Although the training has been intense, Relyea-Spivack said the role has been the most challenging yet the most rewarding. She’s enjoyed working with Emily Rozman and Athena Kopulos, the other two actresses cast as Ariel. Because the three work together to play one character on stage, they’ve had to learn how to harmonize as one character. As such, a lot of trust has grown between the trio.


Emily Rozman

“So it’s been really, really difficult but really amazing to sort of watch all of our progress,” she said.

Going into the final few days before opening night, there are still changes being made to the show. It was also very different working on the silks in the movement studio versus the silks on stage for the show. Because the silks on stage are installed differently, it took time to get used to jumping on them and the movement that happens with the silks.

Woronicz said as rehearsals have progressed, constant changes have been part of the process. “There has been a constant sense of readjusting and rechoreographing and rechanging,” he said.


Athena Kopulos

The silks are essential to in Ariel’s role.

“Henry did a really good job of sort of making sure we’re always touching the silks. He always described it has having a power cord to the sky. Sometimes we disappear behind the silks and we’ll be on stage and you’ll kind of forget that we’re there and we’ll pop out,” Relyea-Spivack said.

While she admits there are times she still thinks what she’s doing is crazy, having Rozman and Kopulos there has been crucial in giving her the confidence to get through the difficulties. Together they work out problems and concerns.

“We’re all in this together so if we’re both having a moment of ‘Ah, I can’t feel my foot,’ we’ll look at each other and be like ‘It’s going to be OK. we’re going to be done in five seconds,’” Relyea-Spivack said.

Adding this skill to her resume will also be important, as she’s not only learned about using aerial silks but has also shown the ability to meet a new challenge.

Woronicz said the actresses are hoping to be able to capture video of the performance that can be used for their audition tapes.

“The theater embraces all kinds of disciplines and modalities, so to have a special skill like that on your resume at the right place at the right time, it might get you the job,” Woronicz said.

So far, the rehearsals seem to be giving Woronicz what he hoped the production could be and more.

“I’m very excited by what’s coming together,” Woronicz said.

Reprinted with permission from The Herald Times. For this story and more arts news, visit

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SPEA Insights: Exploring Caliban in The Tempest

By Rinjisha Roy

William Shakespeare’s plays are renowned for depicting a diverse multitude of characters, and The Tempest is no exception. In the upcoming IU Theatre production, director Henry Woronicz has experimented with his cast, having female actors play different gender roles within the play. And, quite interestingly, this includes the half-monster Caliban, to be played by 3rd year MFA actor, Ashley Dillard.

Having always played women in the past, Ashley observes how unique this experience is. From alternating voice modulations to a bizarre physical appearance, Ashley has had plenty of scope to experiment with her character. “Caliban has had about six different voices and accents,” she says, “Henry and I collaborated in finding Caliban’s voice. Just in the past few days, we found a sound that feels on the right path.” The physicality of Caliban is also intriguing. “The character has a deformity, and I base all my movements around that. Because the upper body is weak, something else has to be strengthened. So all the power comes from the legs and the hips,” she adds.


Abby Lee (Stephano) and Ashley Dillard (Caliban) in an early rehearsal on the Ruth N. Halls stage.

Caliban’s physicality also affects his relationships with the other characters on stage, and often this involves a shifting balance of power. Ashley talks about her early interactions with Matthew Murry, who plays Prospero in the play. “At first Caliban was afraid of Prospero. Matt would attack me and I would get scared, withdraw, and chew on my growth. Then one day Henry said to me that we cannot have Caliban physically disengage so much, because then there is no fight left between the two. So then I tried to find places where I could pick a fight with him,” recounts Ashley.


Ashley Dillard’s “Caliban” in rehearsal

Ashley uses thoughts of revenge to lead Caliban to rebel, even though his deformity makes him the less strong character of the two. “As Caliban, I do not physically or emotionally give up, even though Prospero is the one who usually wins.” Caliban’s resilience leads to a positive change in the character’s relationship with Prospero, a progression that audiences can see happening on stage. Ashley mentions one scene where this is evident. “When Prospero extends the olive branch to Caliban and says, ‘Let’s do this together!’ there is a real moment of reconciliation between the two, because they are not master and servant anymore. I think the relationship being solidified makes the physicality more truthful,” she concludes.

So what has she learned from playing a character like Caliban? Ashley has several thoughts on that. “Previously if I were offered this character, I would have said no way. I play ingénues, and that’s what I do really well. But graduate school has really opened my eyes to saying ‘You can be that, but you can also dig into the masculine side of the same character because those two sides exist within you’, and it has been liberating for me to find my strengths and my power.” It has also allowed her to better relate to the very human feelings in a character like Caliban. “I see a lot of myself in him,” she observes, “as somebody who feels bad when something rightfully theirs is stolen from them.” For her, Caliban’s emotions are reasonable, because she is able to feel Caliban’s agony. “Finding the anger in Caliban is not so difficult, I can hone in on that pretty quickly. It is true for theatre, and acting in general, that the more parts you play that are different from yourself, the more you learn that they are not so different from yourself”.

Ashley’s portrayal of Caliban is certainly one of the aspects in the play that I as an avid Shakespeare admirer am eagerly looking forward to. Ashley mentions how people have responded upon hearing she is playing this role. “Everyone that I have talked to is like ‘That’s awesome!’ or ‘I can’t wait to see a woman do that part!’. Being able to watch a half-monster living in a timeless world on a 21st century stage is a rare treat, and all the more reason for you to come watch this production opening Friday, February 24th  in the Ruth N. Halls Theatre!

The Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance appreciates the valuable contributions of IU’s SPEA arts administrators to the cultural life of Indiana University and the Bloomington community. We look forward to seeing how they continue to be powerful advocates for the arts, here and abroad.

rinjroyrinjisha565-jpegRinjisha Roy is graduate student in the Arts Administration program at SPEA and a graduate assistant for IU Theatre’s marketing department. She is from Calcutta, India and was a literature major as an undergraduate at St. Xaviers College in Calcutta. Her interests include writing, poetry, Shakespearean theatre and classical music. This is her second semester at IU and she is very excited to be a part of the IU Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance.

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Shakespeare Upside Down

By Ashley Dillard


A groupie with the Ariels: Courtney Relyea-Spivack, Emily Rozman and Athena Kopulos

For the past few weeks, I have been knee deep in Shakespeare and loving every minute of it. I am playing Caliban in IU’s production of The Tempest opening next week (run and get your tickets now!). Rehearsal is my favorite part of putting a show together. I love watching other actors in process—it’s fascinating to watch my friends and classmates melt away and characters begin to take form. One of the unique parts of this particular production of The Tempest are the three women playing Ariel. Courtney Relyea-Spivack, Emily Rozman and Athena Kopulos are the brave actors tackling this role. Not only are these women sharing Shakespeare’s verse, choreographing synchronized movement and figuring out vocal qualities, they are doing it all while maneuvering four feet above the stage on aerial silks! If that isn’t an acting challenge, I don’t know what it is!

“It adds an interesting level to the character. We have an advantage because we can visually express what we are trying to say,” Emily said.


Courtney Relyea-Spivack contemplates the challenges that face the Ariels.

The silks can be used in a variety of ways. They can be tied up in order for the actors to climb on them or they can be let down and moved around the set to create specific shapes or pictures on the stage. “The silks definitely help us with character. When they are down and untied we can use them to enhance our own movement. As elemental spirits we want to always be moving and the silks can amplify that. When we’re up in the air I hope that it establishes us more as a more ethereal being,” Athena added.

Each woman is playing a different elemental side of Ariel—Emily is water, Courtney is air and Athena plays fire. These elemental ideas help each actor establish an individual physical and vocal language as well as a group esthetic. Courtney elaborated, “It’s really interesting because in one of our rehearsals we discovered that I was using ballet to influence my movement as air, Emily was using modern to embody water and Athena was using hip hop to influence fire’s movements.”

“Even vocally, we have to consider the other two,” Emily said. From the beginning the actors were being asked by director, Henry Woronicz, to consider not only how each side of Ariel moves, but also how she sounds. “Henry asked us ‘How does the element influence the way that you speak?’ So as air I may be speaking a line on an exhale or an inhale,” said Courtney. “Yeah and for fire, everything has a little bit of a bite to it. Everything is a little bit sharper,” Athena added.


Emily Rozman (Water Ariel)

Ariel silks can be difficult to work with because they can be unpredictable. “I think the hardest line delivery I’ve ever had is saying a line while hanging upside down, “Athena joked. “Yeah, while it’s turning!” Courtney chimed in. “You’re upside down and you’re trying to figure out where you are in relation to everyone else. And you know you have a line coming up, but you’re facing upstage while you’re saying it. You have no control over the silk when it’s spinning like that. Sometimes you can use your core to turn yourself around, but really the silks do what they want.” Emily agreed, “If I feel like I’m in a bad position, I have to kind of ditch the choreography, at least at this stage, to be able to come up to a position where I can deliver the line clearly.”

I am amazed every night at what these women are doing. I’ve also been really impressed with how they seem to be so in sync with each other. “We have to stay connected to each other at all times. Even if it’s just a mental connection, we must always be aware of what the other two are doing,” Emily said.

To see these women in action (this is where I shamelessly plug my own show) come and see The Tempest opening February 24th in the Ruth N. Halls Theatre!

dillard-ashley2017Ashley Dillard is a 3rd year MFA actor at Indiana University. She has been seen most recently as Kate in Dancing at Lughnasa at IU, Katherine in Home at the BPP, Marianne in Sense and Sensibility and Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream both for IU Summer Theater. Though she calls beautiful Bloomington home now, she originally hails from Highland, IN.

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SPEA Insights: Thinking about gender in “The Duchess Of Malfi”

By Rinjisha Roy

rinjroyrinjisha565-jpegRinjisha Roy is graduate student in the Arts Administration program at SPEA and a graduate assistant for IU Theatre’s marketing department. She is from Calcutta, India and was a literature major as an undergraduate at St. Xaviers College in Calcutta. Her interests include writing, poetry, Shakespearean theatre and classical music. This is her second semester at IU and she is very excited to be a part of the IU Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance.

On an ordinary Saturday morning, I saw the world make history again. In what was one of the largest post inaugural global protest, people (regardless of their gender) from all walks of life — teachers, doctors, lawyers, artists, human rights advocates — came together in solidarity to peacefully protest the new leadership on grounds of disrespect and humiliation. As women came forward to voice their concerns, I was impressed with how rationally women could assert their independence and make their claims for equality of opportunities in a freely-thinking society. My question, however, on seeing this was would my grandmothers in their youth have been allowed to stage similar protests on being suppressed?

The answer, doubtlessly, is no. Women who lived in the past were subjugated to greater social pressures, reflected largely in the history and literature of that period. Take for example the tale of the duchess in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, currently being staged by the IU Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance. In the play, the Duchess is bound by laws governing royalty, setting them apart from inferiors like the steward Antonio. In addition to that, as a woman she is expected by her brothers to be submissive and obedient to them, so that they could ultimately protect their social status as ‘powerful’, male descendants of a royal family.

Emily Sullivan (The Duchess) The Duchess of Malfi. IU Theatre. 2017 (Photo by Jeremy Hogan)

Emily Sullivan (The Duchess) The Duchess of Malfi. IU Theatre. 2017 (Photo by Jeremy Hogan)

However, unlike traditional compliant female characters, Webster chooses to make his duchess different. The Duchess of Malfi is intelligent, daring, sensitive and independent. She proposes marriage to Antonio and later assures him of finding a way to explain their relationship to her brothers. Towards the end, she is tortured to death by her brothers but even then, she puts up a brave resistance and claims her true nobility — “I am Duchess of Malfi still” — making her sympathetic to audiences.

Thus, if historically women did not enjoy freedom of speech and decision-making, why is a duchess belonging to the 16th century portrayed differently? One of the reasons for that could be the former reign of an actual female monarch in England. Dr. Christina Gutierrez-Dennehy, performance faculty member at Northern Arizona University, remarks about the influence of Queen Elizabeth the First’s rule. “Of course, England at this time had just had a female ruler, and one of the strongest and most stable rulers they’d seen in a while,” says Gutierrez-Dennehy. She adds, “Elizabeth I was not, however, universally praised, and there were large questions about how a woman — and particularly a woman who chose to remain unmarried and thus to retain her own power than ceding it to a king — would be able to rule.” The queen’s rule induced a lot of questions among people, she believes. “I think we can say that the notion of a female in power was not one that was universally accepted OR universally condemned. Rather, it was an issue still very much in the minds of the people who saw that play.”

By Unknown - National Portrait Gallery: NPG 2082

By Unknown – National Portrait Gallery: NPG 2082

Queen Elizabeth’s impact upon people can also be traced to the unconventional female characters seen in the plays of Shakespeare, who was writing a few years prior to Webster. Some of his well-known characters are Lady Macbeth, Viola, Rosalind and Juliet, who continue to inspire audiences today. Did Shakespeare’s women, then, also inspire a new method of representing women? Gutierrez-Dennehy shares an interesting perspective on that, reminding us of the people playing these women characters. “I think the thing to remember is that Shakespeare knew he was writing for male actors. So often, those male actors are playing women who wind up dressing as men.” She cites Rosalind in As You Like It as an example, and deduces, “because of how often this happens, I think he may be inviting us to think about gender and how it’s constructed, i.e. what makes someone ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’. He’s writing for actors who are used to playing gender like they’d play any aspect of a character’s identity– it’s simply part of the character”, she concludes.

According to Gutierrez-Dennehy then, playwrights like Webster and Shakespeare, through their women characters, have been able to challenge the notion of defining an individual’s identity on the basis of gender, even if it was unintentional on the writer’s part. And as a 21st century citizen, I believe that such a way of writing paved the way for considering other issues, such as the gap between appearance and reality in the people we see every day (this is especially true in case of Bosola), a society apprehensive of alliances with foreigners like Antonio and the consequences of greed and ambition.

Gutierrez-Dennehy, in this regard, mentions a theatre project she is currently working on. “I’m currently working, for example, on a Henry V in which Henry is played by a woman as a FEMALE king. My argument is that re-gendering Henry highlights Henry’s struggles with his own legitimacy. These struggles are readily apparent to British audiences and to those who know Henry’s story, but not necessarily to American audiences (again, in a broad generalization)”, she states. As a director, she feels that it is a theatre director’s job to tell a story that resonates with a particular audience that would reflect the time and values of the period the audience belongs to, at the same time retaining the stories of the texts they choose to tell. By being contextualized in a modern setting, Webster’s play is relevant in acting as a trigger that allows us to question our identities not as men or women, but as human beings capable of being and becoming the change we wish to see in the world around us. And in serving that role, The Duchess of Malfi truly serves a purpose.

The Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance appreciates the valuable contributions of IU’s SPEA arts administrators to the cultural life of Indiana University and the Bloomington community. We look forward to seeing how they continue to be powerful advocates for the arts, here and abroad.

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Malfi: Jacobean bloodbath or children’s theatre? Both!

By James Nelson

Dr. Ron Wainscott, Professor of History, Theory, and Literature

Dr. Ron Wainscott, Professor of History, Theory, and Literature

For a theatre lover, getting to see a production of The Duchess of Malfi is a rare treat. For a scholar and theatre historian, even more so. “I love the play,” said Ron Wainscott, professor of theatre history, theory, and literature and head of the graduate studies here at IU. I sat down with Ron for a few minutes in his office to get his insight on the Jacobean tragedy currently running in the Wells-Metz theatre. Wainscott’s personal connection to the piece started early. “I performed in the play… forty years ago, or something… and played Ferdinand, and it was an incredible experience,” he recounted.

The Duchess of Malfi, written by John Webster around 1612, falls roughly in the middle of the Jacobean era and fell chronologically amidst Shakespeare’s final plays. It’s no understatement that the play is intense: it has a body count rivaling any of Shakespeare’s bloodbaths and plot points involving incest, adultery, murder up the wazoo, and even lycanthropy (really!). But Wainscott stressed that there is a certain amount of fun to be had in the play despite its sadistic tendencies. “There’s an awful lot of dark Jacobean tragedy, but dark doesn’t necessarily mean the plays are just intense or grotesque…there’s a lot of things for the audience to laugh at. (Duchess of Malfi) has a lot of laughter in it, but not everyone finds it – or audiences don’t expect it. They’re just expecting it to be intense or sad or awful.” Which, to be fair, it is – but it’s also got a sense of humor, and it’s okay to laugh when you’re watching the play!

duchess_of_malfi_title_pageWainscott added that for the audience 400 years ago would have been expecting a certain amount of lightness. “Their audience had all those groundlings [spectators that stood in a pit below the stage], and they’re going to be there for the violence and the laughs. So were the upper class people too, although they’re also there to revel in the language.”

One further contribution from Professor Wainscott is that Duchess of Malfi was not first performed by Shakespeare’s theatre group, The King’s Men, as commonly thought – it started, in fact, as… (ready for this?) children’s theatre. “It was first done by children!” said Wainscott with amusement. “A children’s company did Malfi first, which is almost impossible to imagine. But they did a lot of dark tragedies and audiences got into it, and I cannot even begin to understand why. A lot of the heavy duty stuff was done by children, especially in the Jacobean era. They were professional theatres, although the kids were not professionals. I’ll never understand exactly how that was supposed to work.” Afterward, The King’s Men mounted their famous production, in which Richard Burbage (who originated Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello amongst others) played the role of Ferdinand.

Wainscott, like many of us, is genuinely excited to get to see a production of this rarely-produced classic. “In some ways it’s atypical, which is why I think it’s pulled out and still done with some frequency,” he remarked. Wainscott noted that Webster frequently features characters “who are put in an oppressed position, and his central character is often female, which is a risky thing to do – not because it’s a female, but because it would be played by a boy, and the boys have to be highly trained.” Even though the titular role would have been played by a prepubescent child in the original production, in a modern production there’s great potential for a strong female lead. “Webster creates intelligent women,” said Wainscott. For the IU production, that aspect has become the centerpiece of director Katie Horwitz’s vision.

There are so many reasons to check out this show, but the fact that it’s being produced in the first place is cause for excitement. It may be many years before you have another chance to check out a production of this dark, funny, historical classic.

nelson-jamesJames Nelson is the 1st year M.F.A. director at IU, and will direct on the IU mainstage in the 2017-2018 season. Before joining the program, he worked as a freelance theatre director in the San Francisco Bay Area, and served as the former artistic director for the Anglo-Irish Theatre in Tübingen, Germany. James is originally from Kansas City, MO.

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