James Fisher


Chris Murray and Sara Catherine Wheatley in the premiere of Joseph Fisher's "(I Am Still) the Duchess of Malfi" at Artists Rep. Photo: Owen Carey

Bang-bang. You’re dead.

And you, and you, and you.

My, but the Portland stage was littered with bodies over the weekend – more than we can count without peeling off our socks to get to our toes. Governments crumbled, great houses tumbled, and one small family tried very hard to scramble up from the heap. A whip snapped, flagellantly. Fingers got snipped off, excruciatingly. Brains blew away, from extremely close range. Hey, kids, that’s entertainment!

Well, yes, and let us count the ways:

  •  In Portland Center Stage’s premier of Jason Wells’s The North Plan, the immediate body count is only three. But that’s not including the god-only-knows-how-many who might yet take a bullet in the brain as Big Brother decides to clamp down and put an end to this whole democracy farce once and for all.
  •  In Artists Repertory Theatre’s premiere of Joseph Fisher’s (I Am Still) the Duchess of Malfi, a family squabble involving church, state, and some incestuously leaning lechery leads to – never mind; we can’t count that high.
  •  In Third Rail Rep’s production of Allison Moore’s recent Collapse, the serious deadly damage has occurred before the opening curtain, in the rush-hour collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis. That monumental structural failure on August 2, 2007 killed 13 people, injured 145, and caused traumatic psychological damage to untold others.

All of this feels very much like American entertainment, the native expression of a land where a teacher can pack a pistol in a schoolyard but a kid can’t carry a fingernail clipper on an airplane. Yet the roots of violence and political paranoia spread out deep and wide across the sea. Listen to the way the 19th century poet and critic John Addington Symonds described John Webster’s early 17th century revenge tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, the Jacobean English source material for Fisher’s new play:

 “Brief lightning flashes of acute self-revelation illuminate the midnight darkness of the lost souls he has painted. … No dramatist showed more consummate ability in heightening terrible effects, in laying bare the inner mysteries of crime, remorse, and pain combined to make men miserable. … He makes free use of poisoned engines, daggers, pistols, disguised murderers, masques and nightmares. Yet his firm grasp upon the essential qualities of diseased and guilty human nature, his profound pity for the innocent who suffer shipwreck in the storm of evil passions not their own, save him, even at his gloomiest and wildest, from the unrealities and extravagances into which less potent artists … blundered.”

That’s some shipwreck. And apparently the pirates are armed with blunderbusses.


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