Strawdog taps 17th century vein of blood lust with Webster’s murderous ‘Duchess of Malfi’
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Apart from Shakespeare, few plays from early 17th century England can claim a solid hold on the modern stage. Perhaps foremost among these rarities is John Webster’s dark and bloody tale of lust, greed and mayhem, “The Duchess of Malfi,” which Strawdog Theatre has taken up with imagination, gusto and a flair for creative murder.
“The Duchess of Malfi,” set in Italy and first produced around 1613, is based on historical events of about 100 years earlier, involving a widowed aristocratic woman whose brother conspired to prevent her from remarrying in order to control her wealth. Eventually, pressure progressed into more desperate measures.
In Webster’s lurid dramatization, the recently widowed young Duchess has two brothers, the impulsive, mentally unstable Ferdinand and a coldly calculating Cardinal of the Catholic Church. She succeeds in keeping them at bay by secretly marrying a commoner, her steward, by whom she bears three children. The rest of the story is a game of cats and mouse as the Duchess strives to outwit her brothers in their attempts to compromise her.
If this sounds almost like the stuff of drawing room comedy, it’s only because I don’t want to spill Webster’s family size can of beans. “The Duchess of Malfi” is about as comical as “Macbeth,” though in the end the body-strewn stage is more reminiscent of “Hamlet.”
Strawdog’s first-year artistic director, Brandon Bruce, gets points for moxie in bringing Webster’s amply populated play to the theater’s modest performing space. But more than that, Bruce, who also directs the show, must be credited with cleverly adapting Webster’s requirements (in collaboration with Christine Scarfuto) to allow for logistical fluency that also adds an intriguing dimension to the drama.
Bruce’s trick is to transmogrify the play’s assorted small roles into a sort of Greek chorus of actors uniformly robed in white. They pipe up variously in dialogue with the main characters, engage in choreographed movement or utter unison groans of grief or anxiety, a vocal complement to composer-sound designer Mike Przygoda’s evocative, nearly constant backdrop of percussive effects.
All this is framed by designer Joe Schermoly’s compact circular set bordered with columns and doorways draped in gauzy white curtains. And as a costume drama, the production benefits handsomely from Joanna Melville’s splendid garments. In its concept and visual aspect, Strawdog’s “Duchess of Malfi” is smartly on target. But in terms of style, clarity and coherence, the central performances are less well integrated.
The rock upon which any successful production of “Duchess” must rest is neither the lady nor her brothers, but a shadowy character called Bozola who acts as operative for the schemes of the Cardinal and Ferdinand. In Joshua Davis’ physically imposing, articulate and ultimately vulnerable Bozola, Strawdog’s enterprise is solidly provided. Davis delivers Webster’s poetic rhythms with patience and punch. And when this Bozola – curiously spelled with a “z” in the program book rather than the customary “s”– alters his course in the name of honor, we believe in his epiphany.
As the independent-minded though hounded Duchess, Justine C. Turner creates a radiant stage presence, no less sympathetic than sagacious. At least in the performance I heard, however, her voice sometimes didn’t project well – no doubt an inherent problem in a theater where seating on three sides of the stage means someone’s usually getting the actor’s back. Yet Davis made himself heard, as did Stephen Dunn, who plays the Duchess’ steward and the man she surreptitiously chooses as her new husband. Dunn and Turner do make a plausible and appealing couple who transcend the mismatched stations of commoner and aristocrat.
Less satisfying is John Taflan’s near caricature of the Duchess’ loony brother Ferdinand, who variously lusts after his sister and imagines himself a wolf. It’s actually a subtle role to get right, and it doesn’t help Taflan’s over-the-top take on it that he tends to ignore the meter of Webster’s lines in his, well, mad rush. The opposite affliction limits Christopher M. Walsh’s baleful Cardinal, who comes across in monochromatic darkness, uninflected sinister. Sensitive supporting performances are offered by Lindsey Dorcus as the Duchess’ faithful lady in waiting and McKenzie Chinn as the Cardinal’s ill-starred mistress.
Director Bruce’s chorus works to very good effect, whether conveniently handing off props, anonymously speaking lines that propel the play forward, hovering about the central characters like specters of conscience or simply melding into the walls and pillars, the cobwebbed blight of a corrupt house.
- The complete text of “The Duchess of Malfi” is available free: Check out the digital formats at Project Gutenberg
- 19th-century poet-critic Algernon Swinburne wrote about Webster in “The Age of Shakespeare”: Read excerpts at the University of Indiana text resource archives
- Portrait of the historical Duchess of Malfi: See it here
- The Malfi Duchy was on the west coast of Italy, the so-called Amalfi coast: Locate it on the map
- Parts of her castle still stand on the Amalfi Coast: See photographs here
- Before “Bonanza,” Pernell Roberts played the villainous Bosola in “The Duchess of Malfi” on Broadway: Check out his legit credits at ibdb.com
- Excerpts from a 1972 BBC production of the play are viewable: Sample them at YouTube
- Performance location, dates and times: Go to TheatreinChicago.com