The verse is edited and tasty, the story dark with treachery, illicit love, incestuous longings, and madness. It’s all about blood.
St. Clements Theatre boasts a raked audience offering clear views of its proscenium stage. For this production, the stage is draped in a garish red. There are levels to play, and places to hide galore. (The photo below is from St. Clement’s web site and shows a piano that was not onstage for the production. Imagine the left and right sides, and the back, are draped in red, and that an upper level affords a window, if you will, into the private lodgings of the Duchess and her family.)
Lots of hot blooded people in this play. The hot blood of the first half of the play leads to messy blood letting in the second half. Blood spraying, splattering, by guns and knives. There’s also strangling in full view of the audience, and smothering, and a bashing. Yes, everything’s sexual in this play. Knives, guns, and 3 buckets of blood. And a lot of great quotable lines. The dramaturg has cut quite a lot to get this play to run in approximately two hours, and since it’s been decades since I read the script I couldn’t tell you what was cut, except that the first half speeds along very quickly.
The play opens in the dark. Almost dark. For her entrance to downstage center, the Duchess wears widow’s black, which she drops to the floor. She steps into the white dress she wears for her widowhood and remarriage as the lights rise.
Christina Rouner is elegant and tall. This Duchess is in no way subservient to her brothers – she exudes confidence. As a widow, she is still the Duchess, a powerful woman. And, we are soon to learn, she’s in love.
The widowed Duchess’ brothers do not want her to remarry because they want to retain her power. Gareth Saxe plays her twin brother Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria. Ferdinand has more reasons than policy to keep his sister from remarrying; that would be naughty lusting which makes it unbearable to him for her to be with anyone else. Her other brother, the Cardinal of Aragon, deliciously played by Patrick Page, is all about power. He has his own mistress – who, of course, is married to a loyal subject, Castruccio, one of two roles slickly played by Eric Hoffmann. Castruccio’s wife Julia is unsubtly played by Heidi Armbruster.
Meanwhile, as soon as she is free (that is, the official mourning period is over), the Duchess makes woo to the man of her choice for husband: her steward Antonio, sweetly played by Matthew Greer. This of course will not do, since she’s royal and he’s not. Nevertheless, they marry, albeit secretly, witnessed by the Duchess’ loyal gentlewoman, Cariola, a strong Carol Halstead.
The Cardinal of Aragon is instantly revealed as a swine by his treatment of a loyal soldier named Bosola. No fool, brother Ferdinand enlists the aid of the disaffected soldier, promoting him in his sister’s household, and making Bosola his personal “intelligencer” in his sister’s court. Over time, Bosola will have a great deal to report. Such as three children born to the widowed Duchess.
Children -- the Puppets by Jessica Scott are just wonderful, as is the way the actors deal with them. The first time I saw the eldest son -- probably 3 or 4 years old -- carried on the upper level at the back of the stage, I thought, good god, what kind of people would use a real child to hear this story? And then I understood. Really, he was that good, and the people carried him as if he were quite real, needing to be sheltered from some sights, and comforted into sleep. Sound effects by Nathan Leigh of the baby’s cries were remarkably realistic as well. “Seeing” the children had a powerful effect.
Bosola was especially compelling as played by Matthew Rauch. In his first entrance, I found him sympathetic. Soon, though, since we have met and come to care for the victims of his “intelligencing,” he grows more and more vile until his ultimate acts of depravity put him beyond the pale. No matter how despicable he is, though, Bosola addresses the audience, talking to us as if we should agree with him. Which, of course, is just what he should do. Bosola is very well written and even better acted.
The brothers learn of the Duchess’ children – initially believing she’s a fallen woman. The Duchess reassures her twin Ferdinand that she’s married to the father of her children, and somehow that makes it worse. The family flees, the Duchess is captured, and all hell breaks loose.
In the second half, with the Duchess imprisoned, all the trappings of grandeur (that is, those gaudy red curtains) are stripped away showing the bare stage and scaffolding, stair cases, all the entrances and exits that were hidden before. Now we see all. And I do mean all.
The second act opens with the Duchess imprisoned in darkness. Her crazy brother Ferdinand tortures her mentally. He surrounds her with lunatics, and little by little, believing her husband and eldest child dead (they’re actually safe in Milan), she’s losing it. Here comes the major anachronistic oddity of the play. This is my first Duchess, but I’d guess what was done for the poor Duchess going mad was rather outside the norm. Tired of traditional theatrical mad scenes, the director had the Duchess go completely bonkers – and who could blame her. While the lunatic men were molesting her and her gentlewoman, the Duchess is lifted into the air by four or five men, reminding me of a childhood viewing of the beginning of the rape of Aldonza in "Man of La Mancha." While the Duchess writhes above the men, a cable descends from on high. At its end is a microphone, which the Duchess takes. She then sings a sweet romantic Rodgers & Hart song (“Love You More Than Yesterday”) and has a whole fantasy with husband and brothers reconciling. It was amazing and fantastical. I sat with my mouth hanging open, I could hear my friend chuckling. Very, very odd. Interesting. But odd.
I cannot say why, but I quite enjoyed it.
Your typical Elizabethan or Jacobean tragedy traditionally ends with a lot of dead bodies on the stage. The Red Bull’s Duchess does not disappoint. The Duchess is murdered by Bosola and his mercenaries, strangled onstage, in full view. Slowly. Horrifying. Then Cariola is smothered, onstage, in full view, with plastic no less. Finally the third woman in the cast, the mistress of the Cardinal, foolishly taunts him with her knowledge, so he has her “kiss the book.” Which I thought meant “drink.” Apparently here, though, the book was poisoned. Heidi Arbruster’s Julia died downstage, in full view, like the other women in this play.
The Duchess reappears in her original white dress as a spirit (or a hallucination?), echoing words of warning to her naïve husband. Very effective. Of course, warning sweet Antonio does no good. He is one of the dead guys onstage at the end.
And the blood. What a lot of blood, spurting from all angles.
Don’t worry, though – there’s a happy ending. With everyone else dead, the eldest child of the Duchess and her true love Antonio will live to become Duke (of what is unclear), protected by Antonio’s good friend Delio. I was not particularly pleased with Haynes Thigden’s Delio – he is this play’s Horatio, but Thigden was weak, not in the same play as everyone else; he did not speak the speech as effortlessly as most of the others.
Well, what a play. All the leads die. Very violently – the program credits “Violence: J. David Brimmer.” That’s how it’s listed. How Jacobean.
Jesse Berger directed and adapted, along with dramaturg Laura Brown. In my opinion, directed very well. The cast was made up of pros, skilled, and largely very good classical performers.
Patrick Page’s Cardinal was slimy and smarmy; Gareth Saxe’s Ferdinand neurotic, psychotic -- he was a bit much, actually, but in a really fun way. Carol Halstead’s Cariola was simple and clear. Christina Rouner’s Duchess was witty, smooth, regal, loving, gutsy, lusty, and I was rooting for her all the way despite knowing she hadn’t a chance in manmade hell.
This was a fast moving sharp and clear production, eliciting emotional responses from audience as required.
Guns and knives. Knives and guns. The ways they’re used in this wild production, it’s hard to know which is worse. Finally, the exit music was an unusual rendition of “Que Sera Sera” which just had us laughing. I like the Red Bull Theatre!
I’m no expert in Webster, so the presumed cuts didn’t bother me, nor did the anachronisms. I enjoyed the evening. “The Duchess of Malfi” is running at St. Clement’s until the end of March, it’s rarely done, and worth your time.
~ Molly Matera, signing off, looking for an old tattered copy of John Webster's plays.