ADVERTISING AT CURTAINUP
Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
The Duchess of Malfi
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.