The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings







Etcetera and
Short Term Listings


NYC Restaurants


New Jersey







Free Updates
A CurtainUp Review
The Duchess of Malfi

Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle. She died young. —-Ferdinand.
Christina Rouner, Carol Halstead (rear) and Matthew Greer.
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The Duchess of Malfi is not for the faint of heart. Unquestionably John Webster's masterpiece, this tragedy is bloody and brutal even by Renaissance standards, and the manifest unpleasantness of the plot — which goes from sadistic to sociopathic in short order — may explain why it isn't more commonly revived. But it's also a genuinely great play (the equal of Shakespeare's finest), and so any lover of classic theater should celebrate its newest incarnation at the Red Bull Theater. . .especially when the resulting production is as good as this one.

The quality in this case comes from two sources. The first, the direction, is a little more subtle. Jesse Berger's take on Malfi seems fairly straightforward at first, content to focus on the warmth of the Duchess's forbidden passion for her noble but socially inferior steward Antonio juxtaposed with the cold bitterness of her servant Bosola (about whom I'll say more shortly) and the evil cunning of her brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal of Aragon. The set (designed by Beowulf Boritt), apparently just a simple stage covered in a massive sheet of garish magenta with gold print, seems to reflect this reasonable but conservative approach. But right before the end of the play's first half, when Bosola (who has secretly been employed by Ferdinand to watch his sister, and has revealed her relationship accordingly) and his soldiers catch up with the fleeing Duchess and her party, the sheet falls to reveal an unforgiving metal scaffold which will be the backdrop for the rest of the play. From that point forward it becomes clear that Berger is as interested in darkness as Webster himself was, and the result is an appropriately bleak investigation of the perverse depravity of the human soul. And even the risks Berger takes —like a dream sequence number involving the Duchess, a Rodgers and Hart song and a chorus of madmen—generally work perfectly within this framework.

But it's in the acting where this production really takes off. The performers are right on their game here — from Heidi Armbruster's lustful Julia to Matthew Greer's appealingly honest Antonio; and even Gareth Saxe (Ferdinand), who reads the Duke a bit too much as a bored aristocrat in the first half, renders his descent into madness in the show's final stanza convincingly. Patrick Page paints the Cardinal with a coldly Machiavellian brush, and the result is chilling. For her part, Christina Rouner plays the Duchess with warmth, compassion and awe-inspiring strength, and when she proudly asserts "I am Duchess of Malfi still," we're inclined to believe it. Her mix of maternal instinct, a healthy sexual sensibility and confident nobility is perfectly pitched, and her performance is worthy of the title role.

Yet the star of the show is Matthew Rauch, whose Bosola is nothing short of brilliant. Supremely ambitious but filled with self-loathing, it would be easy to dismiss the darkly melancholic character as a typical mercenary without conscience. But as Rauch (and presumably Berger) understands, Bosola is not fundamentally immoral, but rather dedicated to the wrong cause. His problem is that he is slave to the contracts he signs, serving his employer to the full extent of his abilities even as he chafes against the ignoble immorality of what he is ordered to do, and he is never able to find the right master—even when a suitable possibility is right in front of his nose. In his final scene with the Duchess, Bosola's piteous howling at the realization of his mistake is harrowing in the extreme, and as stunning as it is heartfelt. This is a tour de force performance by Rauch, and I'm not being hyperbolic when I say there's something wrong if it doesn't garner an award nomination somewhere.

The pace is a bit uneven at times, and especially in the second half it begins to fall in love with the blood and gore of the play (parents be warned: there are a couple of particularly horrific scenes involving infants, only partially muted by their stylized representation), coming dangerously close to parody in spots. But on the whole this is a high quality production of an exceptional play, and Rauch is so good it's worth seeing for his performance alone. If you're a fan of classic theater and can navigate the production's undeniable brutality, you owe it to yourself to see this Duchess of Malfi.

The Duchess of Malfi
Playwright: John Webster
Director: Jesse Berger
Cast: Heidi Armbruster (Julia), Jason Brown (Grisolan), Clark Carmichael (Roderigo), Keith Hamilton Cobb (Malateste), Matthew Greer (Antonio), Carol Halstead (Cariola), Eric Hoffmann (Castruccio), Patrick Page (The Cardinal), Matthew Rauch (Bosola), Christina Rouner (The Duchess), Gareth Saxe (Ferdinand), Hayes Thigpen (Delio)
Set Design: Beowulf Boritt
Costume Design: Jared B. Leese
Lighting Design: Jason Lyons
Sound Design: Nathan Leigh
Original Music: Scott Killian
Running time: Two hours, twenty-five minutes with a fifteen minute intermission
Red Bull Theater at St. Clement's, 423 West 46th Street, (212) 352-3101
From 2/23/10 to 3/14/10; opening 2/27/10
Tues. — Wed. @ 7 p.m., Thurs.— Fri. @ 8 p.m., Sat. @ 2 and 8 p.m., Sun. @ 3 and 7 p.m.
Tickets: $80 premium seating, $60 general admission, $30 age 30 & under, $30 industry, $20 student, 20% discount for seniors
Reviewed by Dr. Gregory A. Wilson based on February 26th press performance
Highlight one of the responses below and click "copy" or"CTRL+C"
  • I agree with the review of The Duchess of Malfi
  • I disagree with the review of The Duchess of Malfi
  • The review made me eager to see The Duchess of Malfi
Click on the address link E-mail:
Paste the highlighted text into the subject line (CTRL+ V):

Feel free to add detailed comments in the body of the email. . .also the names and emails of any friends to whom you'd like us to forward a copy of this review.

You can also contact us at Curtainup at Facebook , Curtainup at Twitter and at our Blog Annex
Subscribe to our FREE email updates with a note from editor Elyse Sommer about additions to the website -- with main page hot links to the latest features posted at our numerous locations. To subscribe, E-mail:
put SUBSCRIBE CURTAINUP EMAIL UPDATE in the subject line and your full name and email address in the body of the message -- if you can spare a minute, tell us how you came to CurtainUp and from what part of the country.
South Pacific  Revival
South Pacific

In the Heights
In the Heights

Playbill Broadway Yearbook


©Copyright 2010, Elyse Sommer.
Information from this site may not be reproduced in print or online without specific permission from