Sex meets design in the Shakespeare Theatre’s Jacobean horror show The Duchess of Malfi, and it’s hard to say which works harder to carry the day.
Costumer Robert Perdziola provides crimson velvet robes and scarlet hip boots not for the title character, but for a promiscuous Cardinal (Ed Gero) who happens to be her brother. Her other brother—an incest-minded hothead named Ferdinand (Donald Carrier)—sports fur-fringed, Mad Max-inspired leather get-ups in the evening’s first half, then starts howling like a wolf and strips down to a loincloth in the second. The lady herself, played by a freshly wasp-waisted Kelly McGillis, graduates from gilded ball gowns to the sort of flowing nightgown that would today seem appropriate for a Best Actress nominee at the Oscars. Nearly all the Duchess’ dresses have bodices that positively scream to be ripped open, so it’s hardly a surprise (though it’s certainly a theatrical jaw-dropper) when one is.
Walt Spangler’s lacquered setting, meanwhile, centers on a thick, black, enormously phallic architectural spindle that plunges deep into the world of this troubled family—a neat representation for the household member (all allusions intended) that disrupts its line of succession.
For it is the widowed Duchess’ dalliance with one of her stewards that brings on the carnage in John Webster’s melodrama. Titled 17th-century women simply didn’t take servants into their beds—at least not without consequences—especially when land and heirs were at stake. And the cost to a lady as determinedly straightforward and upright as Webster’s Duchess was bound to be high in what passed in the 17th century for a morality play.
The Quentin Tarantino of an English stage that was obsessed with violence, Webster built a reputation chiefly on his two fiercely poetic bloodbaths—The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil—in which his writing is as hauntingly eloquent as his plots are grisly. The playwright is probably best-known to modern audiences as an in-joke in Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love, in which he’s glimpsed as an Elizabethan youngster dangling a terrified mouse by the tail before a clearly intrigued cat. That’s a succinct distillation of what he does to nearly all the central characters in The Duchess of Malfi.
Having committed the unpardonable sin of lusting after the low-born Antonio (Robert Tyree) and bearing his children, the Duchess is clearly doomed, as is everyone—whether friend or foe—in her circle. But it’s the way Webster toys with them that fascinates. He puts a spy in their midst—a snarling, dyspeptic fellow named Bosola (Andrew Long), who’s initially the Duchess’ most ingenious tormenter but has a change of heart and later wreaks vengeance on those who’ve made it their business to undo her.
Shakespeare might have had the characters soliloquize their agony; Webster torments them with every trick the theater offers. He sets madmen to screeching outside the Duchess’ bedchamber; drops blood-soaked corpses from ceilings; proffers severed hands, dung-ripened apricots, and poisoned Bibles to ladies in distress; and has doctors impose medical treatments far worse than the diseases they’re meant to cure. One character debates whether it would be better to have one’s “throat cut with diamonds, or to be shot with pearls”; another threatens mayhem (“I’ll find scorpions to string my whips”) that’s nothing if not imaginative.
And no one escapes. By evening’s end, the folks who love are no better nor worse off than the folks who resent their love. It almost seems as if the only reason anyone survives the onstage carnage is that the author needed someone to speak his curtain line.
It’s a graceful line, though, as are most of the ones that precede it, from the Cardinal’s none-too-subtle cautions about the wages of sin (“Wisdom begins at the end…
Remember that”) to Ferdinand’s paranoid, and slightly too-often-voiced, fears that his sister will be charmed by some “strong-thighed” suitor.
Michael Kahn’s fever-dream staging makes the most of the evening’s visual possibilities, surrounding the performers with a curving, high-walled, lacquered black staircase that glistens ominously when it isn’t splitting into jagged segments, or wrapping creepily around characters who scream (at one point in childbirth) as it embraces them. The staircase wall is pocketed with gleaming decorations that erupt under Amy Appleyard’s lighting, seeming encrusted with rubies one moment, pocked with fleurs-de-lis the next. That huge phallic spindle hangs ominously over the characters in some scenes and descends to the floor in others, its bulbous end offering a seat for weary libertines.
But whereas Kahn and his designers have been able to decorate the play’s journey with plenty of stylistic flourishes, they can’t really tame its melodrama enough to make its story persuasive for a modern audience. It’s easy enough for contemporary theatergoers to get their heads around the notion that women were treated like chattel in the 17th century and that notions of “reputation” could be so elevated that the death of a sibling seemed a perfectly reasonable sacrifice to make to rehabilitate the ol’ family name. Today’s audience can also appreciate the dramatic value of a nifty theatrical conceit, as when Webster brings back the Duchess’ ghost for an echo-effect sequence that’s very clever about re-parsing lines uttered by the living characters.
But not all the Jacobean traditions in which Webster traffics work quite so well now. It’s one thing, for instance, to ask a contemporary theater crowd to shift gears in mid-melodrama for a slapsticky doctor routine (Floyd King is delicious as a quack with delusions of adequacy), quite another to expect it to shift back in a heartbeat to unadorned tragedy. We’ve been trained by movies to deal with the two forms at once, but only in the context of stories that deal heavily in irony. Webster wants us to laugh for a moment and then sob, and our habits die hard. The laughter lingers, instead.
Still, the performances are all intelligent, and all are expertly intertwined in Kahn’s production. McGillis is in particularly good form as a woman who’s determined to hold her head up even as she’s descending into madness, and Caroline Clay and Elizabeth Long have nice moments as the Duchess’ maid and the Cardinal’s whore, respectively—the evening’s only other (and equally doomed) exemplars of the fairer sex. Long’s spying, lying, ultimately too-intelligent-and-sensitive-for-his-own-good Bosola is also effective.
If, despite all their efforts, you feel your suspension of disbelief being strained toward the end, as the bodies pile up to the point that the survivors are having trouble simply navigating their way around the stage, just try to remember the tail ends of Macbeth and Coriolanus. Overwrought plots, you’ll realize, were the nature of the Jacobean beast. On some level, they can never have been taken altogether seriously. Still, the beast roared. CP