The Winter’s Tale: Putting the “Few” in We Happy Few

Well, hello again, adoring fans.  Fancy seeing you here, on our blog, of all places.  It’s still me, your handsome, clever and oh-so-humble production manager Keith Hock, with another blog entry, just in time for our second weekend of shows.  After our opening night last Friday I was sat in front of a computer and told if I didn’t write another post by the next weekend I would be fired realized that this show’s aggressive double-casting gave me a wonderful opening to put together another blog post to share with you all.

Surely some of you, as you left our shows last weekend, had wondered why we would take a play with a cast of 18 named characters and innumerable Guards, Lords, Ladies, Mariners, Gaolers, Shepherdesses, Satyrs, etc., and attempt to put it on with only six people.  And doubtless you would cast your mind back to our previous shows (as I have no doubt you are all long-time fans and have seen all of our performances) and you would be struck! astounded! to realize that, why, we’ve never had more than eight actors in a show!  How can such a thing be?  Well, don’t you all worry your pretty little heads, I’d be more than happy to assuage your fears and give you all a peek behind the dramaturgical veil as to how, and, more importantly, why We Happy Few puts on plays with so few actors. (There’s some arts-management reasons that I’ll go into as well, but that’s not NEARLY as sexy as the phrase ‘dramaturgical veil’).

As you have all noticed, in the narrative I have constructed to frame this blog posting, all of our shows have been notoriously light on actors.  Our last three shows, Duchess of Malfi, Romeo and Juliet, and The Tempest, all had only eight actors, while our debut, Hamlet, tied Winter’s Tale with six!  For reference, going on their Dramatis Personae pages, those shows called for 15 (Duchess), 20 (R&J), 12 (Tempest), and an astounding 22 (Hamlet) named characters*, not to mention anywhere from a magical island to an entire vendetta-fueled city full of supernumeraries.  The Tempest made up for its relatively light 12 characters with a veritable brugh’s worth of fairies, spirits, nymphs and reapers to fill the stage.  We very cleverly sidestepped that issue by turning all of those fairies into Ariel, and then also casting everyone in the show who wasn’t Prospero as Ariel, but how do we deal with the apparent 45-person cast list that Shakespeare [or Webster] has presented us with?
*I say ‘named’ characters but I’m also counting significant characters.  In Hamlet, the gravediggers, the head player, and the priest are all nameless, but since they play substantial roles in their respective scenes (more important than some with actual names, as you’ll see below) they all got counted in my census.

From We Happy Few’s 2013 production of The Tempest. Background L-R: Josh Adams, Britt Duff, Scott Gaines.  Foreground: Andrew Keller

From We Happy Few’s 2013 production of The Tempest. Background L-R: Josh Adams, Britt Duff, Scott Gaines. Foreground: Andrew Keller

The answer is we don’t, neither us nor pretty much any other theatre company in the world.  As cultured citizens of the world I am sure you all go to see plenty of plays that AREN’T We Happy Few-produced, and I’m equally sure that you’ve noticed that the actor bio sections of the programs aren’t 20 pages long and filled with Servants, Soldiers and Guards.  There’s a reason for that.  Did you remember that there was a character named Fortinbras in Hamlet?  What about Voltimand, or Cornelius?  Sometimes we realize that a character doesn’t need to be there, or a scene goes on a little too long, so we do some cutting and combining.  Instead of Reynaldo (Polonius’ servant, apparently) and a whole crowd of other, nameless servants jostling around in Elsinore, we just use Reynaldo, whenever a servant appears.  Or we decide that the play can survive without servants, and we ditch them altogether.  I’ve seen full-stage, big budget productions of Romeo and Juliet that just completely did away with Paris.  Our own Hamlet excised Horatio, and nobody missed him.  It’s not that these characters and scenes don’t serve a purpose in the text, Shakespeare did little needlessly (I’m ignoring Timon of Athens when I say that).  They just don’t serve a purpose in the story we’re telling, so off they go.

All theatre companies do it, but we have to do it more than most.  As a predominantly Fringe company, with a stated focus on creating “stripped down, small cast, ensemble productions”, our timing and manpower is intentionally limited.  We bring all of our shows down to 90 minutes by the time we open, and we do it by scrapping every beat, every moment, every character, that isn’t completely necessary to telling the story we want to tell.  Sometimes that can hurt.  Did you know there was a surprisingly prominent Duke Ferdinand/werewolf subplot in Duchess of Malfi?  I did, because I watched us gradually pare it away in rehearsal as we fought to get to 90 minutes.  In addition to being crazy badass, it was powerful character development for Ferdinand, who loses his already-tenuous connection with his humanity after the barbarism of his parricide and talks himself into the belief that he is a wolf.  We were all sad to see it go, but we knew that it was a few minutes worth of dialogue we couldn’t afford to tell the story we needed to tell.

Don't judge me.

Greater Werewolf, 5th Edition, Magic: The Gathering. Art by Dennis Detwiller

Cutting characters and scenes is all well, and it certainly helps us lower the cast requirements (which you’ll recall is the point I’m supposed to be making in this post), but it only gets us so far.  What we really do to cut that down is double-cast, have one actor play two (or more) roles.  This buys you a lot of space, as many of your actors in smaller roles can serve double duty.  Sampson done being in the play after Act I?  Stuff him in a monk’s robe and he’s Friar John!  All your sailors drowned at the beginning when Prospero brought forth the storm?  (they didn’t, re-read Act I Scene 2, but they’re never seen again so its the same thing)  Roll them in glitter and now they’re spirits!

Combining these two things, cutting and double-casting, can usually get you to somewhere around 12-15 actors.  That’s pretty good, and it works for other companies, but it’s not enough for us.  We take our double-casting a step or two further than a lot of other companies.  Earlier I mentioned that the actors that are double cast are usually the non-leading parts, because they have fewer lines and are in fewer scenes; their casting is a matter of convenience.  OUR double-casting is deliberate and ubiquitous, especially under the guidance of director/producer/founder/superhero, Hannah Todd.  In her productions the only characters we have NOT double-cast were Prospero in The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet in… Romeo and Juliet; Prospero to emphasize his control over everything that happens on the island, and the star-crossed teens to point out their solitude as the only lovers in a city full of hate (My astute readers will argue that Hamlet was single-cast as well, but our Hamlet also spoke the lines for his dead father.  Whether or not the ghost should count as a character in OUR interpretation is up for debate, but since he had two character’s worth of lines he counts as double-cast for my purposes).  Everyone else has been at least double cast, and most of those casting choices have been meaningful, not just a consequence of what scenes happened when.  It was no coincidence that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were also Ophelia and Laertes, or that Tybalt was also the Nurse, or that, as I mentioned earlier, everyone but Prospero, even Caliban, was Ariel.  These choices serve a greater thematic purpose and say more about the show than simply what actors are available for those scenes.

From We Happy Few’s 2012 Hamlet. Left-Right: Raven Bonniwell (Ophelia), Billy Finn (Laertes).

From We Happy Few's 2012 Hamlet.  Left-Right: Billy Finn, Chris Genebach, Raven Bonniwell.

From We Happy Few’s 2012 Hamlet. Left-Right: Billy Finn (Rosencrantz or Guildenstern), Chris Genebach (Hamlet), Raven Bonniwell (the other one).

But we have attained more saturation with our multi-casting for The Winter’s Tale than with any show before.  If you saw it already, surely you realized how significant it was that Kerry McGee embody both Mamillius and his sister Perdita, or that Kiernan McGowan play both the doomed Antigonus and the servant who relayed his demise, or that Raven Bonniwell portray both Hermione and Camillo’s mirrored punishments.  How fitting that Nathan Bennett give us both the prideful, paranoid, appearance-obsessed Leontes and the ludicrous cross-dressing confluence of Dorcas and Mopsa.  How touching that Katy Carkuff deliver the baby Perdita as Paulina, and raise it across the sea as the Shepherd.  And how truly remarkable that William Vaughan’s nameless lord (guard?) who comforts Mamillius in the beginning, turn out to be none other than Perdita’s love Florizel at the end.*  I told you last time there was magic to be had by the double handful in the Romances, you just have to know where to look.

*If you didn’t realize how all this was to be significant, or haven’t seen it yet and have no idea what I’m talking about, tickets are still available for all our upcoming shows here!

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The TRUE and SHOCKING Tale of Giovanna D’Aragona, the Duchess of Malfi

Lindsey's face is saying "Cool story, bro"

Lindsey Snyder (seated) as the Duchess of Malfi being patronized by Brit Herring (center) as the Duchess’ brother Duke Ferdinand, while Matthew Pauli (right) looking on as the Cardinal, the Duchess other brother. Photo courtesy Paul Reisman, who puts the capital D in Director.

Welcome to the most kick-ass Duchess of Malfi blog you will read today! I’m Alan Katz, your faithful dramaturg and blogger. We Happy Few are deep in tech rehearsal right now at the Mead Theatre Lab, creating some technical theater magic that will wow you when you come see the show. While they are busy making magic in the present day, I’m going to take you back in time, way back, in fact, to the early 16th century in southern Italy. Here we’ll not only find courts full of plots and panderers, but also our eponymous Duchess, Giovanna d’Aragona, whose tragic life is the subject of John Webster’s play.

Apparently, Ayrton thought that the Duchess had an alternate career in the circus as "The Incredible Long-Armed Woman"

Since no contemporary portrait exists of our particular Giovanna d’Aragona, here is Michael Ayrton’s interpretation of the Duchess circa 1945. Photo courtesy of liveauctioneers.com

Giovanna d’Aragona’s life was tragic, with death following her even from early in her life. Her father, Enrico d’Aragona Marquis of Gerace, was poisoned by mushrooms in 1478 when she was just a year old. She became the Duchess of Malfi through marriage, having wedded late (for her time) at the age of twenty. Her husband died shortly thereafter, widowing her before the age of 30 and giving her sole claim to rule the Duchy of Amalfi. John Webster’s play picks up a while after her husband’s death, with the Duchess ruling the roost.

Up in the club, you just croaked up/ I'm doing my own little thing/You decided to dip, but now you wanna trip/Cause my jealous brothers noticed me

Here is Lindsey Snyder, our Duchess of Malfi, blinging out like the badass ruler she is and staying strong despite her husband’s early demise. Photo Courtesy of Gwen Grastorf, who rocks

Here is where our Duchess starts to get into trouble. With the culture of 16th century Italy being as sexist as it was, even a woman of royal blood who was ruling a Duchy had to have a man taking care of business affairs for her. For the Duchess, this man was Antonio Beccadelli Bologna. Now, Antonio was the major domo to the Duchess (sometimes called a butler), so he handled the accounting of her possessions and lands, a chief steward to the household. That isn’t to say that Antonio was just a common peasant. His grandfather was a celebrated Humanist and had been granted citizenship and nobility in the Kingdom of Naples, so Antonio was more of a small-time, up-jumped aristocrat. Despite that rank, Antonio and the Duchess got themselves into trouble when they fell in love. The Duchess was of royal blood (her grandfather was the King of Naples) and loving a mid-status guy like Antonio was frowned upon, especially by her brother Luigi (a Cardinal and the chief power-broker in her family).

He'll live on, and he'll be strong, cause it ain't his cross to bear.

Here is Matthew Pauli as the Cardinal, looking super dark and mysterious with his ominous cross necklace. Photo courtesy of Paul Reisman, who can really capture Noir, even without the use of fedoras.

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SPOILER ALERT! From here to the end of this blog post there are potential SPOILERS! While John Webster didn’t exactly follow the true history of the real Duchess of Malfi, he did incorporate major elements of the history into his play. If you continue reading, you do so at the risk of SPOILING some of the plot twists in the play. If you don’t care about spoilers or have already read the Wikipedia article for the Duchess of Malfi, read on, brave soul. **

**

The fact that the Duchess and Antonio were in love wasn’t very culturally acceptable, but not uncommon. There are all sorts of examples of royals having affairs with lower nobility at this time in Italy. But, and this is a big but, one thing that was NOT done was a royal marrying someone of a lower class, even a lower noble class. So what do the Duchess and Antonio do? Get married, of course. They were married in a secret ceremony, too, so they definitely knew that they were breaking taboos. Then, the took another step and had children together, which is a pretty hard thing to hide. They wound up not being able to hide it. Cardinal Luigi found out, so the Duchess and Antonio picked up their children and ran. The Cardinal, being a powerful man with connections throughout Italy, found their hiding spot in Ancona, and got them exiled.

All along the watchtower, Duchess kept the view. Where both her brothers came and went, and executioners, too.

The Torre Dello Ziro, one of the possible resting places of the Duchess of Malfi and her children. Part of its grounds have been converted into a bed and breakfast. Because, you know, historical child murder is what you really want in a B&B. Photo courtesy of dianacity.com

Here’s where things get interesting. Antonio escapes to Milan, but the Duchess and her children don’t. They disappear. Tradition holds that the Duchess and her children were either taken back to her palace at Amalfi or to the Torre Dello Ziro on the Amalfi coast. All of the sources agree, however, that none of them were ever seen again. The Cardinal was thought to be the force behind her murder. Soon after, Antonio was spotted going to church in Milan, and, right after he left, he was murdered in the street by a man named Bosola, who was thought to be an agent of the Cardinal. Ironically, after being the prime suspect in the murders of two adults and three children, Cardinal Luigi headed up a Papal Commission investigating secret intrigues. I guess it takes an evil, secretive conspirator to know an evil, secretive conspirator.

Over the next couple of posts, we’ll be featuring some meet-the-cast videos, and a look at the Early Modern adaptation, plus the original production of Duchess of Malfi to see how it influenced the play you are going to go see, starting July 13th!

Get your tickets for Duchess of Malfi now!

A New We Happy Few Show is Coming!

And we’re back! We Happy Few is returning from a long hiatus after our very successful run of Romeo and Juliet last year, and We’ve got a tempting, but rarely produced, masterpiece on the boards for Capital Fringe this summer. As you may remember, when Hannah Todd and Raven Bonniwell founded We Happy Few, they created a company dedicated to producing small-cast, stripped down, ensemble versions of classic plays. Over the past 3 years, We have done exactly that, putting on small cast versions of The Tempest, Hamlet and, Romeo and Juliet. What do all of those plays have in common? They’re all written by William Shakespeare! But our mission is bigger than just Shakespeare, We are committed to perform classic plays in our special style. So we are branching out this summer by performing the rarely-produced, but razor-sharp, Duchess of Malfi by John Webster.

Duchess of Malfi Title PageThe original title page for the quarto of Duchess of Malfi. Are there awesome gems of knowledge hidden in this image? You bet your sweet bippy there are. And you can find out what they are in the next blog post! (Photo courtesy of the University of Oxford)

Haven’t heard of the Duchess? Don’t worry. If you like the intrigue of Shakespeare’s Histories or the madness and murder of his Tragedies, you are going to love The Duchess of Malfi. Sounds awesome, doesn’t it? It gets awesomer. We have all kinds of special treats planned for our audiences. From a pre-show talk on July 16th to a post-show discussion with some of the creative team on July 19th, there are all kinds of ways for you to get closer to this play. Even better, you can come back to this blog and check out cool features where you can learn about the play, meet the cast and creative team, and get sneak peeks into rehearsal. Speaking of sneak peeks into rehearsal…

Alan, Paul, and KiernanAlan Katz (left), Dramaturg and Incredibly Handsome Man, Paul Reisman (middle), Director and Even Handsomer Man, and Kiernan McGowan (right) , Producer and Handsomest Man of Them All (Photo courtesy of the wonderful Gwen Grastorf)

I will be one of your hosts for these awesome goodies. That’s me on the left, during one of the first rehearsals for Duchess, doing some dramaturgical “table work” with the director and actors. Table work comes in the first few rehearsals of the production, where the cast and creative team literally sit around a table to read the script and the director explains his vision while initial questions about the script are answered. As the dramaturg, table work is important for my job, since my job is to bring a historical perspective to the production and to help make the play more accessible to you, our audience. Join me for some upcoming blog posts where you can learn about the true story of the Duchess of Malfi, a story rife with dangerous secrets, illicit affairs, intrigue, madness, and murder where Big Brother lurks around every corner in this disturbingly modern world.

Tickets are on sale now! We open on July 13th at Flashpoint DC and run through July 23rd! Buy your tickets now!