With his tolerant parents only occasionally putting their feet down, Friend, now 20, tackled the major-league challenge of staging John Webster’s “The Duchess of Malfi” in multiple rooms and outdoor levels of a handsome house on Langdrum Lane. And in so doing, he staked a local claim on an intriguing trend in modern stagecraft: turning private houses and apartments into temporary public stages.
It’s a clever, pragmatic offshoot of a two-decades-old movement in the theater, the presentation of drama in “site-specific” venues. This term has come broadly to signify the adaptation for a special production of any space not originally intended for use as a theater. A site-specific show could be an obscure Irish play performed in a swimming pool, as the D.C. company Solas Nua mounted in Georgetown several summers ago. Or it could be a loose adaptation of “Macbeth,” staged in a former hotel, as the wildly popular “Sleep No More” continues to represent, on a side street on the far west side of Manhattan.
These days, by virtue of both craft and thrift, theater-makers are taking more seriously the site-specific advantages of creating stages in people’s furnished abodes. David Adjmi, for example, whose plays have been produced across the nation, including his tragicomic “Stunning” at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, saw a run of his monologue “Elective Affinities” in an Upper East Side apartment, performed by no less an eminence than Zoe Caldwell. And while informal living-room readings of plays by actors have long been a staple of script development, the potential of living rooms as ticket-supported venues is only just beginning to be tapped.
Mariah MacCarthy, a New York-based playwright who’ll have a work produced next season at Baltimore’s Glass Mind Theatre, has of late staged two of her plays in apartments in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Astoria, Queens. “The thing that appealed to me about this apartment was that it was beautifully and eclectically decorated,” she said, of the Brooklyn space that was chosen for “The Foreplay Play.” The story of gay and straight couples that spend an evening in one of the couple’s living rooms, “The Foreplay Play,” MacCarthy said, was served especially well by the authenticity of the surroundings.
“The payoff was that as an audience member you really felt like a voyeur,” she said. “You felt like someone had taken out the wall, and you were spying on your neighbors. There was this wonderful sense of ‘I’m getting to see something secret.’ ”
That feeling of being an insider for some special event was palpable earlier this month, as you walked through the front door of the Langdrum Lane home of Gary Friend and Tara Sonenshine for one of the three weekend performances of “The Duchess of Malfi.” Plays in private homes are at once familiar and exotic: it’s underground theater, in the most bourgeois of settings. And right from the get-go with this “Duchess” — a play of such formidable language and byzantine structure that even world-class companies misstep with it — the ingenuity apparent in marrying “Malfi” to suburbia infused the project with a power on which it might not otherwise have quite so viscerally thrived.
Attending a play in a private residence is still such a novelty that a theatergoer approaches the experience with a certain extra trepidation: is this going to feel like theater of the last resort? Even the actors Jordan Friend recruited for the production, a gaggle of Georgetown Day students, alumni and faculty, wondered what they were getting themselves into.
“I just didn’t know what to expect,” remarked Jared Sprowls, a Northwestern University theater student who graduated with Friend last year and agreed to take on one of the largest roles, that of the conspiratorial Bosola. “I sort of said to myself: ‘Who’s going to show up to this, other than my parents?’ ”
Friend, in fact, did back into home-style theater as a last resort. In a visit to his alma mater over spring break, he outlined his plan for a summer play with John Burghardt, his high school Shakespeare teacher, with the thought of a run in the school’s black-box theater. Friend blurted out, “We’re doing ‘Duchess of Malfi!’ ”
“And that was kind of it,” he said of the play, a tale of homicide, lust and endless intrigue in a rich and powerful Italian family. “I had recently been watching ‘Game of Thrones’ and it intrigued me, the idea of brutality backed with legitimate emotion.”
Though he discovered using the black-box space would be too costly, Friend forged ahead after his college term ended, sending out casting notices on Facebook, merging adaptations of the text and even adding some new, transitional material, with Burghardt’s help. “I was lying on my living room floor,” he recalled. “I was looking at the script, and at my living room, and seeing that there are these two upstage entrances in it, like the Globe” — the re-creation of Shakespeare’s theater, in London.
Friend’s mother and father, to whom the young man’s friends ascribe superhuman reserves of generosity and patience, agreed to allow their son to take over the house for rehearsals and performances — without fully appreciating the controlled chaos in which they were about to descend.
“We’re used to strange requests,” said Sonenshine, standing in a kitchen that had been turned into an area for sodas and other concessions.
They did haggle over seating capacity. “His opening bid was 50,” Gary Friend said of his son. “There were some tense exchanges where I was arguing the laws of physics,” Jordan later added. For each of the three performances on the weekend of July 13, Jordan settled for an audience cap of 30.
It is no overstatement to say that Friend, his cast of 12, his co-director, Susannah Clark, and technical team led by Georgetown Day classmate Henry Brown, pulled off something remarkable. The audience was initially led to the house’s front walk, and afterward was guided seamlessly to each of the rooms in which the play unfolded. From the curbside arrival (in his father’s Acura) of Jordan’s Duke Ferdinand to the garroting in a basement dungeon of Ebony Chuukwu’s Duchess, to a final pileup of stabbing victims in the living room, this modern-day “Malfi” used its environment with such gleeful conviction that the effect was downright tickling.
The inventiveness extended to a viewing of the purported hanging bodies of the Duchess’s husband (Adam Faruqi) and daughter (Tess Thornton) on a flat-screen TV, and the dispensing of train tickets to spectators, for the movement to the dining room for the scenes in the Vatican with Burghardt’s evil Cardinal. Meanwhile, Brown and the technical team had wired a room-to-room sound system, allowing the original score by another alumnus, Erik Fredriksen, to follow the roving action.
Like many of her castmates, Chuukwu, entering her sophomore year as a theater major at Grinnell College in Iowa, had never even heard of “The Duchess of Malfi” before Friend sent her the Facebook message. After the weeks of rehearsal, she began to feel comfortable with the archaic language, and even got to pick out the Duchess’s wedding dress. “I bought it at Banana Republic,” she explained with a laugh. “They were having a sale.”
Neighbors, friends, parents and schoolmates who were asked to donate whatever they could for admission, filled the folding chairs. (The show made back its $500 or so in expenses).
“Our living room and their living room is about the same size,” a woman seated in the front row was heard to whisper.
Ultimately, the reunion with old acting comrades in the rooms he grew up in filled Friend up so warmly he began sleeping in the living room — the show’s primary performance space. “I think the house took a back seat to the people,” he said. “It became this living community. I wanted to learn and I wanted to have a good time, and make something new and exciting.”
The house on Langdrum Lane is back to its full-time job now, and Friend is onto his next bit of theater — a summer-stock show in Baltimore. The adventure in private-home theater taught him and his buddies a lesson, though, one articulated best by Sprowls, in a conversation about the future with one of his co-stars. “Ebony,” he told her, “you have to make your own opportunities.”