By John Webster
Directed by Christopher Marino
Produced by Trap Door Theatre, Chicago
“Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust, like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust.”
With the Shakespeare 400 Festival going on this year, now is a good time to take advantage of an opportunity to see a little of the broader theatre culture the Bard was working in. Revenge tragedies were among the most popular and enduring dramas throughout the early modern period, dominating English stages from the time of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy in 1587 through the closure of the theatres in 1642.By the time John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi debuted at the Globe somewhere around 1611-1614, playwrights delighted in outdoing each other in presenting the most depraved cruelty in the most theatrical manner. Director Christopher Marino, who recently directed Macbeth and Tis Pity She’s a Whore in other cities, commits Trap Door to fully exploiting that kind of theatricality which, for better or worse, revels in its excess. But Webster’s use of language remains among the finest accomplishments of the English stage.
The story is based on the life of Giovanna d’Aragona, historical Duchess of Amalfi, and princess of the Neapolitan branch of the royal family of Aragon. The Duchess (Lyndsay Rose Kane) is a widow, and wishes to re-marry for love. The object of her affection is her head of staff, Antonio (Mike Steele), a commoner. He returns her love and they start a family, but must do so in secret. The Duchess’s brothers, Ferdinand (Casey Chapman) and the Cardinal (John Kahara) wish to control her, and at least in Ferdinand’s case, are perversely jealous of any man who lies with her. They employ the cutthroat Bosola (Kevin Cox) to spy on her, and when he reports on her family and his suspicions about the identity of her husband, the brothers capture their sister, and prepare a cruel death for her.
And then things get weird. Following the intermission, we are treated to a character who thinks he’s a werewolf, a poisoned book, an allegorical fable about reputation, an echo warning a character he is going to die, and insane inmates having an orgy, all in about twenty minutes. Marino maximizes the import and impact of each of these incidents as much as possible, but coming all in a row as they do, it’s a bit much. And though the original production of The Duchess of Malfi played in the intimate, indoor Blackfriars theatre, this production strains at the seams of Trap Door’s small stage. The relatively large twelve-person cast’s movements behind the backdrop as they prepare myriad props and costumes isn’t always graceful, either.
On the positive side, Kane and Cox are fascinatingly charismatic in the two lead roles. The Duchess is one of my favorite characters in theatre, and in Kane’s hands, she is a loving, courageous, admirable, and deeply sympathetic woman. The scene in which she proposes to Antonio is as funny, sweet, and heartwarming in this production as in any, and from the moment Kane first walks on, we are unshakably on her side. Bosola likes her, too, and is outraged and disappointed at one point when she falsely accuses Antonio of theft, which unbeknownst to him, was part of a plan to place Antonio beyond her brothers’ jurisdiction. Misanthropic, spiteful, and weak to temptation, Bosola is a nasty figure, but Cox makes it totally believable that contact with the Duchess and Antonio would stir Bosola’s long suppressed conscience.
Though I wound up enjoying this production’s first act more than its second, John Webster’s language, and especially his concluding couplets, are a delight throughout. “Though Lust do mask in ne’er so strange disguise, she’s oft found witty, but is never wise,” is the kind of line which gives actors permission to chew the scenery, and Trap Door’s cast has fun with it. The revenge tragedy style gives the director a lot of leeway in how seriously to take it, and Marino’s and his actors’ interpretation of the villainous brothers doesn’t quite grant them enough depth to fully exploit The Duchess of Malfi’s potential for psychological horror. Marino does, however, create a number of disturbing and memorable images. Going into a year of Shakespeare celebrations, it’s good to be reminded that he was writing at a time when forgiveness and reconciliation were considered shocking plot twists. Webster’s Duchess is a classic, and especially at Trap Door’s low price, it’s an excellent opportunity to get into the Jacobean spirit.
Reviewed January 14, 2016
This show has been Jeff recommended.
For more information, see The Duchess of Malfi’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W Cortland Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $20-25 with two-for-one admission on Fridays; to order, call 773-384-0494 or visit trapdoortheatre.com. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 pm through February 20. Running time is two and a half hours with one intermission.