Pondering modern sex roles on a recent radio call-in show, the host was forcefully making the rather medieval point that men's power still resides in their wallets, women's in their looks. A male poet, broke, may strike a sexy figure in his early 20s, the argument went, but such romanticism soon turns pathetic. After all, what woman will want to remain attached to this fellow when he's crossed over 40?

A woman called in to protest. In her teens, she had married just such a man, now in his 30s, and she meant to assure radio listeners that her love was still strong. The host started chipping away, asking whether she makes more money than he does, and if so, whether that bothers her. Yes, she's the primary breadwinner, she admitted, and (pause) yes, it's starting to gnaw at her. And yes, she'd like to be taken care of. And so on. Ancient cultural forces are bearing down upon them, the host pontificated. The sexual revolution was just an adolescent scuffle.

Oh yes? The caller should see Denise Gillman's stirring staging of The Duchess of Malfi, John Webster's 1604 revenge tragedy, adapted by Bertolt Brecht and W.H. Auden, on Theater of NOTE's tiny stage. That the Brecht-Auden adaptation was scuttled from the boards in 1946 is neither here nor there. Here and now – remarkably – is the adaptation's very first production, thanks to the efforts of co-producers Pilgrimage Theater and Theater of NOTE.

Among the reasons that Webster is a mere blip on theater history's radar, compared to his contemporary William Shakespeare, is that Webster was a revolutionary poet, challenging his society's fundamental attitudes and power structures, many of which we have inherited (as evidenced on that radio talk show). The Bard may have taken kings to task both emotionally and psychologically, but never did he challenge royalty's divine right, as did Webster in The Duchess of Malfi.

Bertolt Brecht, too, was a revolutionary, which probably explains his attraction to Webster's play. But he was also a romantic, and left us a lyrical, faux-Elizabethan text – complete with odes to the purity of love – imposed upon Webster's Jacobean plot.

The story, set in the early 16th century, concerns a widowed Duchess (the birdlike Trace Turville), who's none too bereaved. Her former marriage had been, after all, arranged for the usual financial reasons. Curiously, her brother, Duke Ferdinand (the powerhouse Andre Marrero, head shaved, leather-vested), demands, in accordance with the precepts of Christian morality, that she never remarry. He offers her his dagger in exchange for her pearl necklace, which he will carry into battle in Cyprus. The thrust of this metaphor of exchange will soon come home.

But of course, as soon as Ferdinand is out of sight, the Duchess falls in love – wedding, as discreetly as possible, a lowborn soldier, Antonio (Peter Konerko). In the sanctity of this marriage of inconvenience, she will attempt to hide her new children from Ferdinand's wrath. Meanwhile, ostensibly in support of Ferdinand, a second brother, the Cardinal of Anconia (David Conner), excommunicates their sister while opportunely seizing her estates. On hearing this, Ferdinand again rages, this time against the Cardinal for so shaming their sibling in public.

After all, this is a family affair. And Ferdinand's behavior is like that of a lover, an incestuous passion Brecht-Auden chose to accentuate in their rendition, probably with an eye to selling tickets. Here it's largely beside the point – a point expressed in verse after verse questioning society's respect for birthright, money and status over character and merit.

“Search the heads of the greatest rivers of the world, you shall find them but bubbles of water,” says Ferdinand's agent, Bosola (the wry and subtle Kiff Scholl). When the Duchess remarks on her new husband's lowly station, Bosola asks, rhetorically, “Will you make yourself a mercenary herald/Rather to examine men's pedigrees than virtues?” The play's poetic and thematic culmination comes in Auden's epilogue: “Vain the living ambition of kings/Who seek by trophies and dead things/To leave a living name behind/And weave but nets to catch the wind.”

Gillman's spartan staging is rhythmically snappy, and fiercely acted by a fine ensemble who know how to punch up the play's sly wit. Philip Mooers' carefully sculpted lights are all blanch and shadow and candlelight, while David Bickford has contributed a couple of Kurt Weill-like ditties. There's hardly room for a set; viewers have to tuck in their feet to avoid tripping the actors. With so much craft and so little space, to see this Duchess is like sitting inside a powder keg with a lit fuse – as though poetry could blow the roof off and leave us someplace in the open air, where the heart is stronger than the wallet.

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.