The beauty of the language and the brutality of this Duchess of Malfi lingered in my mind’s eye for days after the cast took their final bows. Rhymed couplets curled through the air as an assassin’s hand went to work throughout John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. The DC-based classical theatre company We Happy Few is offering a Fringe production of this 400-year old tale of family strife and betrayal that seduces and stuns.
Founded in 2012, We Happy Few has made its mark with pared down but impactful productions of Hamlet, The Tempest, and Romeo and Juliet at Fringe and elsewhere. Now, taking their first step away from the works of Shakespeare they have struck gold.
Webster’s plays followed Shakespeare’s on the London stage by a few years and he introduced a new level of grit that was likely shocking even for an era that could not get enough of what has become known as the revenge tragedy. Such plays – Hamlet, and this play – saw terrible wrongs righted in bloody and gruesome ways and occupied Shakespeare’s later output as well as his younger contemporary, John Webster.
We know Shakespeare as a dramatist and poet and his place among the Elizabethan and Jacobean era writers is pretty secure. (Even with those who speculate otherwise.) Webster is more obscure; he writes in verse, but his plays get right down to business, and The Duchess of Malfi is no exception. Within the first five minutes, Webster introduces a sibling triangle that would rival the Borgias in greed and deceit. By ten minutes in, his intricate plot thickens to a steady boil.
With a valuable estate under her possession, the widowed Duchess (Lindsey D. Snyder) is all but forbidden to marry again by her covetous brothers, Duke Ferdinand (Brit Herring) and the Cardinal (Matthew Pauli). To keep a closer watch over their sister and her assets, twin brother Ferdinand hires an assassin, Bosola (Rafael Untalan), to spy on the Duchess.
The Duchess will have nothing to do with remaining a chaste widow and quickly catches the eye of her household manager, Antonio (Drew Kopas). Describing the duchess to his friend Delio (Harlan Work), Antonio says, “She stains the time past, lights the time to come.” He is smitten with her, but she is the one who proposes a secret marriage to him. In short order, their union bears twins, a boy and a girl, and eventually a third child. (Unlike most of Shakespeare’s plays, a bit of time transpires in Malfi.)
What follows is a web of espionage, plots for murder, double-crosses and a body count that leaves Hamlet’s in the dust. Incest, fratricide, and even infanticide take their toll. The Jacobean theatre-goers must have eaten this show up like a last meal and We Happy Few’s production captures this dark tragedy and all its glorious mayhem.
Director Paul Reisman used the jewel-box intimacy of Flashpoint Gallery to full effect. Placing the audience on three sides of a tiny playing area, no audience member was any more than a few feet from the action. The actors could speak just above a whisper and used the opportunity throughout the performance to draw listeners in to the bloody business. Aided by the atmospheric lighting design of Jason Aufdem-Brinke, coupled with stark moments of pure darkness, Webster’s characters had plenty of shadows in which to lurk.
Reisman focused on clear storytelling without imposing an additional production concept onto the play. The production was also served, beyond a shadow of a doubt, by a fine company of actors. I can honestly say, The Duchess of Malfi boasts one of the strongest casts of any show I’ve seen in Washington in the last year.Their intensity and attention to detail was riveting to watch.
by John Webster
at Flashpoint Gallery
916 G Street NW
Washington, DC 20001
Details and tickets
Gwen Grastorf makes the most of her contrasting roles as the Duchess’ devoted handmaiden and the Cardinal’s lusty mistress. The cast is rounded out by Harlan Work as Delio, and Jonathan Lee Taylor as various courtiers and characters.
Murder shrieks out and blood flies upward and bedews the heavens, so penned John Webster in The Duchess of Malfi in 1614. And, lucky for us, We Happy Few is breathing new life into this old play 400 years later.