Big Mess Theatre, presented by PAPA, last week at the Arts Bank.

The court has assembled. The Duchess of Malfi (a young widow), her twin brother Ferdinand (the Duke of Calabria) and their brother (the Cardinal) make a grand entrance. The two brothers tell the Duchess, on no uncertain terms, that she must not even consider remarrying.

This conversation sets into motion the action of John Webster's tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, arguably one of the greatest plays written in English in its period -- and this is a period that includes Shakespeare.

But this is The Duchess Malfi (with the "of" dropped) by Big Mess Theatre, Philadelphia's own inexplicably popular, incomprehensibly respected, self-indulgently funky theater company. When the three noble siblings make their entrance, a live string quintet strikes up the title theme of Schubert's "Trout" Quintet. Enter Ferdinand and the Cardinal, wheeling on a large fish tank, addressing the live fish swimming in it as their sister the Duchess.

There are plenty of funky things going on in Webster's play that are right up Big Mess' alley -- a severed hand, wax replicas of corpses, a chorus of lunatics and a poisoned Bible, to name only a few. And director/adapter Greg Giovanni tarts up the script with a few signature Big Mess gimmicks of his own -- a lot of same-sex characters kissing each other on the mouth, one character hanging upside down by his ankles, a singer of dubious talents singing a Renaissance hymn dressed as the Virgin Mary, etc.

But none of these equals Giovanni's boldest interpretive masterstroke: for the first hour and a quarter of the evening, he stages the entire play, beginning to end, without the title character. All the Duchess' major scenes are cut; her few other appearances (with one meaningless exception) are made as a fish in a tank. Imagine Hamlet, from the soldiers on the battlements through Fortinbras' last speech, without seeing or hearing Hamlet and you get the idea.

OK: in one of the Duchess' big speeches, she tells an allegorical story about a salmon and a dogfish. But otherwise, I just don't get what this is supposed to signify. But that's not the problem. For in cutting the Duchess' scenes, the audience simply doesn't have a clue about what's going on or why. A steward who admires the Duchess from afar is suddenly sharing with his friend his worries about his secret marriage being exposed, and then complains about being separated from her and two of their three children. Ferdinand suddenly starts thinking he's a werewolf. The Cardinal tries to conceal a murder that we don't know anything about. A misanthropic intriguer suddenly becomes a divinely inspired avenger -- but why, and of what, we haven't a clue. (And I speak as someone who knows the play well, and -- full disclosure -- has directed a not-altogether-traditional production of it.)

After the intermission, the Duchess herself enters, now played by Grace Gonglewski, looking everything like a painting by Veronese, and speaking with the poise, the music and the emotional connectedness of a real actor. For the next 45 minutes we get the scenes, and the character, we had missed, with only a few Big Mess excrescences (mostly to cover scene changes).

Gonglewski tries hard to make up for lost time, finding both the dignity and the defiance of her role, despite everything she has to put up with. The Duchess may have to put up with her irrationally oppressive siblings; but Gonglewski must put up with semi-competent (and a few totally incompetent) supporting actors, and the challenge of compressing a play's worth of growth and experience into a single uninterrupted span of time. Under those conditions, Gonglewski was magnificent. I hope she'll get the chance to play the part in a real production some day.

With that thought, I began to see The Duchess Malfi as a painful allegory about the state of Philadelphia theater. The play is about women who try to assert their basic rights to autonomy and self-expression in a world that prevents them from doing so, and that cruelly punishes them for even trying.

Now consider the case of some of Philadelphia's finest actresses, and some of the only opportunities they have had to play some of the greatest female roles in the literature: Susan McKey as Juliet in the summer remounting of Romeo and Juliet at People's Light & Theatre two years ago, Melanye Finister playing Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra for Simply Classic earlier this season, and now Grace Gonglewski as the Duchess of Malfi.

The only chances these actors have had to play these magnificent roles have been in these ghastly, directorially manipulative theatrical abortions. Who know whether they will ever be given another crack at these roles.

That's the real tragedy.

-- Cary M. Mazer