Duchess of Malfi intrigues and delights

Review published in Encore Michigan, by Marin Heinritz, 1/26/2016

Playwright John Webster, Shakespeare’s contemporary, is known for his twisted, macabre sensibility as well as his gorgeous use of language. T.S. Eliot described him as a poet “much possessed by death, and saw the skull beneath the skin.”

Webster’s masterpiece, The Duchess of Malfi, exemplifies his penchant for gruesome horror coupled with transcendent poetry. It’s a glorious piece of literature with some pretty astoundingly progressive feminist and marxist undertones for a 17th Century piece. And The Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company makes the most of this gem with interesting casting and technical choices that speak to a contemporary audience while also honoring early modern English theatrical traditions in their generous production offered as part of the Lake Effect Fringe Festival at Dog Story Theater in Grand Rapids.

The widowed Duchess of Malfi secretly marries her steward Antonio, though her brothers, the Cardinal and Duke Ferdinand, who covet her estate, have forbidden her to marry. She and Antonio surreptitiously have three children and a happy life together until they’re found out, and all hell breaks loose in a harrowing nightmare in which threats, murders, affairs, lies, incestuous desires, deep despair, and insanity, among other dark forces, abound.

The show opens with a playful curtain speech as a two-person scene with the players explaining to the audience how things will go, and how it’s different than how it would go should the performance be put on in France. It’s a light-hearted tease for what’s to come. As are the musical interludes, integrated under Scott Lange’s fine direction, the first of which is a live acoustic rendition of No Doubt’s “I’m Just a Girl” to set up the bold yet deeply sensitive Duchess’s plight. Delightful.

Another generous choice: a page in the program devoted to “What Happens in the Play” outlines the narrative of the first half of the performance. No audience member is left behind, no matter how dense and convoluted the language may seem in the long-winded set up during which little happens and a lot is explained. Excellent move.

In keeping with traditional practices, set pieces and props are minimal, though the small-scale proscenium that doubles as a shrine and gallows is genius; no special lighting is used, and the audience sits under the same light as the actors play; elegant earth tone costumes (female characters in floor length dresses with bell sleeves and bustiers and male characters in tights) evoke the period; and cross gender casting is de rigeur. Though here, women play men and not the other way around, as would be more common in Shakespeare’s day.

Director Alisha Huber’s casting choices seem to emerge from a commitment to bringing forth each actor’s strengths and abilities, regardless of sex or gender. Katherine Mayberry’s delivery as the Duchess is largely quiet and underplayed, which works beautifully. She is stoic and self possessed; her grief is gripping. Kat Hermes’ Bosola is dark, horrible, complex—a huge sinister presence, though her costume’s trash-bag dance pants might be better reconsidered. Sean Kelly is a sharp, explosive Ferdinand; Scott Lange is a lovely, sweet-voiced Antonio; and Chris S. Teller’s inescapable warmth provides depth to the Cardinal, who might otherwise be a one-note villain.

It’s an active, balanced stage, with nary a dull moment. The action ultimately evolves into a bloodbath, though the only blood we see is that on a handkerchief from a nosebleed in an early act. The violence is felt viscerally and the effect is truly horrifying without the aid of a single special effect. Without such distractions, this helps keep focus on the play’s extraordinary language.

“Ambition, madam, is a great man’s madness, ” Antonio wisely says, with an unstated nod to the central theme of Shakespeare’s Scottish play. In a meta-move that echoes “As You Like It,” the Duchess proclaims “I account this world a tedious theater, For I do play a part in ‘t ‘gainst my will.” And Ferdinand, in a moment of regret if not penance, says the deeply resonant “Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust, like diamonds we are cut with our own dust.”

Even beyond these mere examples, the script is full of surprising imagery, subtle Biblical references, humor, and deep insight into the tragedy of the human condition. And every move this fine company makes invites the audience deeper into Webster’s dark poetry, which is ultimately what makes this production so thrilling and deeply moving.

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