Mar 26 2014

Renaissance Drama and Lusty Widows

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As everybody knows, widows are dangerously licentious creatures. Having once been exposed to “the marital act,” their blood runs hot in their veins as a constant inclination towards promiscuity overwhelms them…

Okay, maybe “everybody” doesn’t know that, but a large percentage of Renaissance Europe did. The “lusty widow,” a stock character in English Renaissance drama, spoke to a greater social problem: the fact that widows occupied a dangerously liminal zone in the era’s hierarchical order. On the one hand, they had a greater amount of both social freedom and legal rights (generally concerning property law) than either wives or unmarried ladies. On the other, they were still legally subservient to men and, of course, still subject to all the natural weaknesses of the female body and brain that justify such divisions. As Juan Luis Vives puts it in his Instruction for a Christian Woman, a handbook for female education that was nearly as influential in Protestant England as it was in Vives’s native, Catholic Spain,

“Many be glad, that their husbands be gone, as who were rid out of yoke and bondage: and they rejoice that they be out of dominion and bond and have recovered their liberty: but they be of a foolish opinion. For the ship is not at liberty, that lacketh a governor, but rather destitute: neither a child that lacketh his tutor, but rather wandering without order and reason.” (Instruction for a Christian Woman, Juan Luis Vives, trans. Richard Hyrd, 1557)

Indeed, as easy as it is to say that widows remained generally “subservient to men,” the question arises: to whom exactly were they responsible? The men in the family into which they were born, those in the family into which they married, their own adult sons (if they had any)? Should they remarry in order to gain a new husband? According to Vives, the answer to this latter question is “yes” but only if their lascivious inclinations would otherwise lead them to damnation; remarriage otherwise would serve as a poor alternative to a life newly dedicated to Christ. And should a widow need a new spouse, she should never choose a young, handsome man (who would only further enflame her riotous libido) but rather “something past middle age, sober, sad, and of good wit” (Ibid.).

Webster further wrote The Duchess of Malfi at a time of changing ideas about the role of all women within their own engagement process. The increasingly prevalent Protestant ideal of companionate marriage, a marriage between spiritually compatible individuals, led to a parallel emphasis on female choice and consent. For at least one Puritan writer, speaking to his widowed sister, this appears to be particularly true of second marriage:

“As a well wishing brother [I] open my mouth and utter my mind unto you, not that I mind to persuade or dissuade marriage with you, for therein you may best be your own judge, for you know best where your show(?) wringeth you: neither need you any counselor to bid you cut where it wringeth you.” (A View of Mans Estate, Andrew Kingsmill, 1574)

So exactly what is the duchess’s crime in her remarriage? Disobedience? Lust? Socially transgressive behavior? How harshly would the play’s original audience have judged her? In this, as in so many things, Webster denies us easy answers.

— Megan Smith, dramaturg

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Mar 17 2014

The Duchess of Malfi: A real-life, historical soap opera

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Once upon a time (1490), in a land far away (Amalfi, Italy), a young princess (only twelve years old!) married the heir apparent to the dukedom of Amalfi, Alfonso Piccolomini. Piccolomini, by then the duke, succumbed to gout in 1498, leaving behind his young widow, Giovanna d’Aragona, and an unborn son, their young daughter having died earlier that year. The young duchess assumed the duties of the regent for her infant son. In 1504, she invited Antonio Bologna, her late father’s major-domo in his exile, to come to Amalfi to serve her in the same capacity. The two quickly fell in love, and it is here that John Webster picks up their story.

Much debated portrait of Giovanna D'Aragona, attributed to the workshop of Raphael

The date of the lovers’ secret marriage has remained just that, secret, and could have taken place as late as 1506. By the birth of her second child, rumors had started to circulate, and the couple had attracted the unwelcome attention of her two brothers, the Cardinal of Aragon and the Marquis of Gerace. Antonio left his again-pregnant wife to take their two children to Ancona, and, on the pretext of a pilgrimage to Santa Maria of Loretto, the duchess followed shortly thereafter. The Cardinal of Aragon convinced first the Cardinal of Ancona and then the Signiory of Siena to expel the unhappy lovers. In 1511, the duchess and her two youngest were finally overtaken on the road to Venice and imprisoned in Amalfi, but Antonio and the older child managed to escape to Milan. The duchess, her children, and her waiting woman entered their prison in Amalfi, never to be seen again.

La Torre dello Ziro in Amalfi, where legend places the duchess at the time of her death. The locals tell of strange hauntings ever since.

Antonio was not left long a widower. In 1513, a Lombard captain named Daniele da Bozzolo and three accomplices murdered Antonio on a Milanese street. The murderers, likely hired by the Cardinal of Aragon, escaped.

— Megan Smith, dramaturg


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Mar 08 2014

Commonplacing The Duchess of Malfi: Sparknotes à la 1623

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Long ago and far away, in a land without Kindles, wikiquotes, or even the common paperback, Renaissance readers would keep commonplace books, blank books into which they would transcribe notes, poems, recipes, sermons, quotations, and anything else that caught their fancy for later use. Theirs was a culture that prized a prettily or wittily turned phrase. Indeed, English Renaissance playgoers would speak not of “seeing” a play but of “hearing” one. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, printed books started to appear with commonplace markers, aids for the eager (but less apt) consumer. Commonplace markers look like modern quotation marks, but they mark lines that are quotable rather than lines taken from other sources; I suppose you could say that they’re quotation-marks-in-waiting.

Some of the “good bits” of The Duchess of Malfi (1623):

The great are like the base; nay, they are the same
When they seek shameful ways to avoid shame.

Though Lust do mask in ne’er so strange disguise,
She’s oft found witty but is never wise.

It is some mercy when men kill with speed.

There’s no deep valley but near some great hill.

Glories, like glow-worms, afar off shine bright,
But looked to near have neither heat nor light.

Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust,
Like Diamonds we are cut with our own dust.


–Megan Smith, dramaturg

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Jan 24 2014

Christopher Plummer wants YOU…

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…to help assure the survival of the appreciation of the written word…

Plummer quietly concludes his show with an ardent defense of our literary heritage: “We must implore, beseech, entice, cajole, persuade, induce the children to read everything of value, of beauty while they’re young or what’s a heaven for?”
He then quotes Emily Dickinson, a fitting thing to do for a performer whose art has been galvanized by poetry.

(from the LA Times)

…and what better way to affirm your commitment to doing so than…

Webster’s English is some of the best on offer anywhere, bar none. Become a part of this incredible adventure in logophilia.

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Jan 17 2014

meet the designers: Pablo Santiago (lighting)

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I am very pleased to have Pablo Santiago designing the lights for this show. Like Eun Nym Cho, the set and costume designer for The Duchess of Malfi, Pablo is a graduate of the MFA program in design at UCLA.

Pablo is the winner of the Cirque Du Soleil Scholarship Award, James Pendleton Foundation Prize, Kovler Foundation Award and the Executive Board Award. In 2013 he designed “Spring Awakening”, “Il Segreto di Susanna”, L’Enfant et Les Sortileges for Peter Kazaras and the Opera School, in addition to Set and Lights for “Strip Tease” and “The Killing Game”. Last summer Pablo lit “Empanada For A Dream” and “The Psychic Life of Savages” at LATC and “Year of The Rabbit” and “The Belle of Belfast” at EST; He has also designed: “RENT”, “Erendira”, “Adding Machine”, “A Dark Sun”, “The Ginger Man” and “Exploding Lear” at UCLA-TFT. Pablo has also done extensive work in Dance his credits include: “Laudromatinee”, “Catch Your Breath”, by Heidi Duckler, “Mother F*cker” by Christine Suarez and “Surveillance Solos” by Rebecca Alson-Milkman, WAC-MFA concerts at UCLA, “Back Flash Forward”, HiT tHe GrOund/RuNniNG and Exit Strategy; Other credits include: A shared evening by Rande Dorn “As We Grow Down” and Arianne MacBean “People Go Where The Chairs Are,” ”Commuter Festival and Westwaves dance festival (Randé), the AWARDS show LA at REDCAT (Randé and Arianne), and the AWARDS show San Francisco at ODC (choreographer: Manuelto Biag), String Theory at the Broad Theater SM, “H2Eau” for choreographer: Paula Present at Fais Do Do. In addition to “Little Shop of Horrors” and Bugsy, (Director: Nancy Fraciolla).

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Jan 16 2014

meet the designers: Eunnym Cho (set and costumes)

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Eunnym Cho is a scenic and costume designer. She discovered her extraordinary passion for theater when she participated in a backstage workshop at the age of 16. Since then, she has been actively involved in theater as a creative and enthusiastic scenic, costume, and prop designer. Recent scenic design credits include Spring Awakening, directed by Nicholas Gunn, and Antwone Fisher: A Play directed by Antwone Fisher. Recent costume design credits include Time Stands Still, directed by Marya Mazor, and Hay Fever, directed by Jessica Kubzansky. Visit her website for more information at

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Jan 15 2014

meet the designers: Jeff Gardner, sound

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I am very pleased to be working again with Jeff Gardener, who designed the sound for our inaugural production, Conversation Storm/The House of Cards. Jeff is an “actor/sound designer”, and will be doing both in The Duchess of Malfi. He’ll be playing the role of Antonio, as well as designing the sound.

Jeff is an actor/sound designer born and raised in Los Angeles. He has performed with The Shakespeare Theatre, DC, The Studio Theatre, A Noise Within, The Kennedy Center, Williamstown Theatre Festival and is a member of The Antaeus Company in North Hollywood. Jeff has toured with his award-winning solo show, KILL YOUR TELEVISION, can be seen at LA Theatre Works where he regularly performs live sound effects and is resident sound designer for the Westridge School in Pasadena. Acting credits include MACBETH, KING LEAR (The Antaeus Company); HAMLET (The Globe Playhouse); THE TEMPEST (A Noise Within); LITTLE WOMEN (Kennedy Center, National Tour); SKYLIGHT (The Studio Theatre); HENRY V w/ Harry Hamlin, MEASURE FOR MEASURE w/ Kelly McGillis (The Shakespeare Theatre, DC); Other regional credits include OUR TOWN w/ James Whitmore and THE SEAGULL w/ Christopher Walken (Williamstown Theatre Festival).

So glad to be working with Jeff again!

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Jan 08 2014

so who’s this John Webster guy anyway?

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We made a big announcement today. We have begun fundraising for our upcoming production of John Webster’s play The Duchess of Malfi.

Uranium Madhouse Presents The Duchess of Malfi – project teaser from Andrew Utter on Vimeo.

So…John Webster? Who’s John Webster?

Actually, you know.

john webster in shakespeare in love

If you that looks familiar, but you can’t quite place it, you can watch the clip here, although you might have to put up with some pretty annoying advertising.

Better fortune, boy.I was in a play.They cut my head off in Titus Andronicus.When I write plays, they’ll be like Titus.You admire it.I liked it when they cut heads off,and the daughter mutilated with knives.What’s your name?John Webster.Here, kitty, kitty.Plenty of blood.That’s the only writing.I have to get back.See, where he comes. So please you step aside.

THAT’S John Webster. The one feeding the mice to the cat.

And… the part about plenty of blood is no lie.

But it’s also a caricature of what Webster is all about:

But as this article from an Oxford University website points out:

Although Webster’s plays include adultery, murder, treachery, and political machinations, he doesn’t write that way just for the shock value. His plays reveal real, albeit unpleasant, truths about people: he brings out issues of class divide, the nature of justice, love and lust, the role of religion, political obligation, sibling relations, and immorality in the courts. Webster creates characters that both are and are not sympathetic, complex in a manner not unlike real human beings. All the while he masterfully crafts the play’s structure to prolong suspense.

And I think he had a thing or two to say about the anguish of being and facing death as the ultimate test of character. Or as TS Eliot put it:

Webster was much possessed of death/
He saw the skull beneath the skin

Anyway, I hope you’ll join us for the show, which is planned for May, and if you’d consider donating to support our effort, we would be most grateful.

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Nov 10 2012

slideshow for the A Man’s A Man donors

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Here’s a slideshow created by the great Alex Fishkin, with music he composed for Uranium Madhouse’s 2012 production of Brecht’s A Man’s A Man, with photographs by Travis Shakespeare and Jim Utter.

A Man’s A Man SlideShow from Andrew Utter on Vimeo.

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Jun 18 2012

the newest Madhouse denizen

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Greetings, Sammy Fishkin, brand new son of Alex Fishkin, composer for our upcoming production of A Man’s A Man and member of the Uranium Madhouse Advisory Board. We are deeply honored to make your acquaintance!

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