The Duchess of Malfi is a morality play with no morals, a revenge play in which no one’s revenged, except accidentally; a tragedy in which so many people get killed that there’s almost no one to clean up afterward; Titus Andronicus without the corpus delicious. It is four hundred and five years old, and thus its frame of reference is different than ours. Some of the metaphors playwright John Webster uses will be alien to you, unless you are a scholar of early 17th-century drama. And yet the motivations are by and large as clear as glass, and if you think of this not as a “classic,” fraught with meaning, but as an old-school slasher story done up in the Grand Guignol style, you will end up having a good time. It is at bottom a bloody romp, a tragic comedy, a weirdly satisfying exploration into a world of evil, the lifestyles of the rich and infamous.
The celebrant-in-chief and doctor of depravity is Ferdinand, the Duke of Calabria and brother to the eponymous Duchess. In a role designed for scenery-chewing, Ian Blackwell Rogers consumes the stage with lip-smacking satisfaction. Half Beetlejuice, half The Joker (as played by the late, great Heath Ledger), Rogers gives us a manic, energetic Ferdinand, wide-eyed and obsessive, who commits his evil with such joyful expressiveness that you are half tempted to root for him.
The counterpart to this manic Duke is his depressive brother, the Cardinal, played by Steve Lebens with such gravity that I almost expected objects to fly toward him. Lebens’ basso profundo voice well serves the cautious Cardinal, who by toning his brother’s excesses down displays himself to be an even more dangerous man. When not plotting murder in order to increase his own coffers from his parent’s estate, the Cardinal does the horizontal bop with his mistress Julia (Adrianne Knapp), wife of the hapless Castruchio (Charlie Cook), thus managing, in the course of one hundred fifty minutes, to violate Commandments four through ten of the Catholic catechism.
The story is not about Ferdinand and the Cardinal, though they are magnetic throughout. It is instead about the poor Duchess (Katie Culligan), sister to both of them, who as the play opens is newly widowed. When Ferdinand and the Cardinal warn her at her husband’s funeral never to marry again (they want her share of their parents’ estate when she dies — a fact we don’t learn until the second Act), she readily agrees. But in the next scene she is all over her steward Antonio (Jared H. Graham), and before long she is newly (but secretly) married and the mother of twins.
The Duchess of Malfi
closes November 18, 2018
Details and tickets
The brothers are not taken in by her anti-matrimonial protestations, however, and soon Ferdinand engages Bosola (Rebecca Speas), who appears to be a professional bad person, to spy on the Duchess’ household. She does so, effectively, and thus the Duchess’ troubles begin.
Viewed at least from a modern perspective, it is the story of a woman trying to live her life in a world controlled by men. In his program notes, director Casey Kaleba argues that “Positions of authority allow the (male) characters of the play to act almost entirely without consequence, and to impose their ghoulish amorality on everyone around them.” The point is easy to understand; even today, women are constantly at risk of having their sexuality defined by men, whether in their own family or in the mass media.
This production, however, subverts the point to a certain degree by turning several roles written by Webster as males into female roles. Chief among these is Bosola, a rough, mean character who too late finds a conscience. Speas does a fine job with the role, laying the foundation for Bosola’s self-conflict down early, but by casting Speas as Bosola and Danielle Scott in several roles which were written for males (most notably Antonio’s friend Delio), Brave Spirits plays down the idea that in the universe of the play, women have no power.
Musa Gurnis plays the Duchess’ waiting-woman beautifully and Culligan is all that Webster could have wanted in a Duchess, but both the play and the performance have imperfections. There are continuity problems. For example, at one point the Cardinal kills a troublesome character by getting her to kiss a poisoned book (by not very persuasive means, in my view) after first carefully gloving his hand and picking the book up. But a few minutes later he picks up the same book with his bare hand, without consequence.
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Rogers, Leben, Speas, Gurnis and Culligan all do good work — Rogers, Speas and Gurnis especially so. But some of the performances were notso hotso. I did not buy Graham as Antonio at all; Webster gives him some of the most extravagant lines, but Graham’s underplayed reading of them sounded mechanical. It’s a difficult role; Antonio begins as a glorified clerk but suddenly finds himself the object of the Duchess’ amorous intentions (imagine Malvolio if things really worked out as he hoped); now suddenly he is her lover and husband and father of her children; and then suddenly he is torn asunder from her. Antonio feels a thousand things — hope, lust, the force of revelation, fear and rage, among then. I didn’t see any of that from Graham.
In the middle of the second Act, Ferdinand decides to summon the residents of a nearby lunatic asylum (the entire cast, except for Rogers, Culligan, Speas and Gurnis) to perform a dance in front of the Duchess. It doesn’t make much sense, but the dance is beautiful and the music (Jordan Friend is the sound designer) is great. In a capsule way, this episode epitomizes Brave Spirits’ The Duchess of Malfi. If you sit in your chair as a critic, and attempt to puzzle the play out, or draw larger lessons from it, you will be frustrated, If, instead, you resolve to let the language flow over you until you adjust (the actors are all skilled at delivering a classical text) and just enjoy the funny and exciting and extravagant bits, you’ll find that it is a good use of your hard-earned money.
The Duchess of Malfi runs in rep with The Changeling through November 18, 2018.
The Duchess of Malfi, by John Webster . Directed by Casey Kaleba, who was also the fight director . Featuring Ian Blackwell Rogers, Steve Lebens, Katie Culligan, Jared H. Graham (who is the fight captain as well), Danielle Scott (who provides the lobby art as well), Rebecca Speas, Adrianne Knapp, Charlie Cook, Musa Gurnis, Ben Peter (who is the music captain as well) and Ryan Fields . Dramaturg: Claire Kimball, who also did production photography . Intimacy choreographer: Emily Sucher . Costume designer: Madeline Belknap . Lighting designer: Alex Brady . Sound designer: Jordan Friend . Makeup designer: Briana Manentre . Set consultant: Daniel Mori . Graphic designer: Jessica Aimone . Stage manager: Laura Hawk . Produced by Brave Spirits Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.