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Discontented With 'The Malcontent'
The revelatory thing about productions of older plays is that age doesn't necessarily make a show dated--the human verities remain constant--and great art shrugs off accumulated centuries like water drops. The flip side of this, however, is that just because a play happens to be ancient and obscure, it isn't necessarily a classic. The Antaeus Company's raison d'etre is to shine a light on underappreciated or forgotten masterworks, and the group is brilliant at it, but unfortunately John Marston's The Malcontent is still a problematic play four centuries after its premiere.
Antaeus, as always, double-casts its shows; this is a review of the "Cuckolds" cast only. The production boasts top-notch tech credits and several terrific performances, and there is much to enjoy here. Regrettably, the lead performance goes astray, and that combined with the play's inherent difficulties creates a somewhat unsatisfying experience.
Altofront (Bo Foxworth), the usurped Duke of Genoa, has been wrongfully banished by the machinations of the current Duke, Pietro (Bill Brochtrup), and the ambitious Mendoza (Ramon DeOcampo). Altofront has returned home to get justice by disguising himself as the malcontent Malevole, a person everyone listens to but no one takes seriously. No one, that is, until Malevole informs Pietro that his wife, Aurelia (Jules Willcox), is cheating on him with Mendoza, and that's when the plotting and treachery really kicks into high gear.
Foxworth has a great deal of energy, but that vitality is channeled into a monochromatic performance. He’s fine when he calmly plays Altofront, but when he essays Malevole, it’s with a cartoonishly high, pinched voice and rolling eyes, a blunt hammer beating relentlessly on the same nail all night long. Considering that Malevole is onstage about 90% of the time, this is a problem. Brochtrup, by contrast, is quiet and subtle as the repentant Pietro, and he gets some good comic mileage when the Duke pretends to be a religious hermit.
DeOcampo is superb as the scheming Mendoza, making his dialogue sing with humor. His unfettered joy upon the news of the Duke’s death, dancing happily around the stage like a giddy child, is a show highlight. Willcox is amusing and does what she can with a somewhat unbelievable role—the sudden repentance of such a particularly selfish character doesn’t ring true. Finally, John Achorn is delightful as the pompous and self-serving Bilioso, and Ann Noble makes a strong impression as Altofront’s virtuous wife, Maria.
Director Elizabeth Swain does a professional job overall, but the pacing of the first act is slow and she really should have reined in or added some modulation to her lead actor’s performance. Marston’s text is dense, and, unless you’re carrying a pocket OED, a certain amount of references will be incomprehensible. At times the plot seems over-convoluted, and structurally it’s just odd: One important character doesn’t show up until the last twenty minutes of the show. Tom Buderwitz’s theatre replica set makes a perfect location for chicanery at court, and A. Jeffrey Schoenberg has outdone himself with the lush costumes.
The Malcontent runs through June 19 at The Antaeus Company @ Deaf West Theatre. Tickets $30-34 via phone at (818) 506-1983 or online.