Vivian A.O. Barnes’ “Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!” Steppenwolf takes on the royal “Firm”

Photo by Lowell Thomas

Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!, Steppenwolf Theatre’s latest addition to its NOW series of virtual plays, feels as if it has been ripped out of this month’s headlines (though it was written in 2018). A brief (half an hour or so) and intense examination of the ways in which all of the rules that must be followed in becoming a royal demand sacrificing the most human aspects of one’s personality.

From Sydney Charles’ first moments (as the titular and otherwise unnamed Duchess), in which we watch as she painstakingly practices a simple greeting, we find ourselves in a world not entirely like (or unlike) our own. Playwright Vivian A.O. Barnes’ script plays on the artificiality and absurdity of the performance of royalty as the Duchess has her first meeting with the “Soon-To-Be Duchess” (Celeste M. Cooper), who has not yet been broken down by whatever process it is that transforms otherwise normal young women into Stepford creations of what we have learned to call the “Firm” from the recent focus on Meghan Markle (whose story has clearly inspired this play).

The newest member of the royal family, a laid-back and very open young woman shown here one week before her wedding, is already overwhelmed by the demands of tradition and the paparazzi. She has been hoping that her first meeting with the Duchess—a week after the latter has given birth to her second baby—will be a breath of fresh air and even camaraderie as they laugh at their similar treatment. What she finds instead is a cautionary tale of her future: a broken soul whose affect has entirely been subverted by the protocols she must abide by to the extent that these protocols now formulate her whole personality.

Director Weyni Mengesha, who had to direct each actress in separate spaces and have their performances combined by computer because of COVID-19, obviously is forced to rely to an extraordinary extent on close-ups. These, however, allow us the opportunity to witness more of the complexity of both characters’ confusion as the free-spirited Soon-To-Be (not named Meghan, but I mean really…) finds herself trying to cut through the stodgy and icy surface of the Duchess to see if there is any humanity remaining. The more she realizes that the Duchess has become a machine (and Mengesha makes free use of sound effects to maximize the effect), the more Soon-To-Be finds herself determined to save her even if it means she has to “burn the whole thing down.”

Both actresses as very impressive here, with Cooper’s determined girl-next-door portrayal jarringly contrasting with Charles’ performance, in which her character’s soul is clearly at war with who she has been forced to turn into. Her grisly description of the birth of her latest child shows how deeply she has fallen into the trap, but the clearer it becomes, the more the Soon-To-Be finds that she needs to avoid it at all costs.

Barnes, whose crisp dialogue provides two clear and understandable characters in this short play, chooses to leave one powerful door unopened. Both actresses are Black, and much of Markle’s issues with the Firm and the paparazzi has had racial undertones, but Barnes ignores race entirely. It seems like a real opportunity missed. Still, Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!, with its prescient portrayals, shows clearly why Soon-To-Be could never possibly fit into the insular culture she has found herself caught up in. No matter how exciting it might seem to marry a Prince, life isn’t a fairy tale.

This play can be watched through the theatre’s website at through August 31.

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