The Duchess of Malfi
nytheatre.com review by Heather Lee Rogers
February 27, 2010
In Red Bull's slick and grisly production of The Duchess of Malfi, the characters reveal their true skin and true blood both metaphorically and literally. It is the theatrical equivalent of a roller coaster ride through lust and punishment. This is not a play for the faint-of-heart.
The show begins when the lights lower as the Duchess enters. She appears mostly in silhouette wearing dark clothes and a veil. As pallbearers carry away a coffin, she strips off her mourning garments and pulls a slinky white evening gown over her body with obvious relief. This prelude is beautifully articulated by Christina Rouner as the Duchess. This is a sensual woman, back in the game.
When the lights go up for Scene One, we see the bright court of Malfi at party time. The simple set (designed by Beowulf Boritt) is completely drenched in this fuchsia fabric with a shimmery brocade. It covers the stage floor, the walls, the chairs—everything is covered. It is garish, glam, and deliciously at odds with a lot of the reds in the fabulous party costumes designed by Jared B. Leese.
Against this backdrop, we learn that everyone is dissembling on some level. The Cardinal denies he owes any debt to Bosola who had just been released from two years in the galleys as a result of service to his eminence and has turned up to collect. The doctor's wife, Julia, is a sexy strumpet hot for the Cardinal. The Cardinal and the Duke are both brothers to the newly widowed Duchess and urge her, creepily, not to marry again without their consent. She agrees. The Duke hires Bosola to spy on her anyway. However, the minute she's free of their company, she proposes to the handsome steward in her employ and they marry instantly with only her handmaid as a witness.
From there things get more complicated. As lies and lusts pile up, the dangers mount and facades fall. Soon we have murder, madness, despair, sex, and lots of bloody gore. The plot moves quickly and gives Red Bull's capable cast loads of drama to wrestle with. I particularly enjoyed the work of Matthew Rauch as the morally conflicted Bosola, Patrick Page's masterful turn as the wry Cardinal, and Matthew Greer's ingenuous performance as the Duchess's sane bridegroom/steward. As the plot gets uglier and the characters' motives get more exposed, Boritt's set transforms boldly in turn. Beautifully echoing this dissembling and revealing theme, lighting designer Jason Lyons uses both light and darkness deftly to reveal and conceal the action to great dramatic effect. A voice comes out of darkness, a horror is revealed by flashlight, searchlights pan across figures in rags and then disappear. Aside from the intellectually brilliant symbolism of these technical choices, let me tell you it makes for one SCARY second act when violence and madness grapple on a bleak set in a dark theatre.
The result is a powerful, seductive, and horrific ride that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Kudos to director Jesse Berger and the whole artistic team for coordinating a show that is intellectually, aesthetically and viscerally exciting. Reserve a seat, secure the bar across your legs, and hold on tight for a thrilling ride!