That's the basic plot of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi. The play is the best known of all Jacobean revenge tragedies, but those who see it for the first time in the current Writers' Theatre production may wonder what power has kept it in the repertory for nearly 400 years. As adapted and directed by Writers' Theatre artistic director Michael Halberstam, The Duchess of Malfi is now pithy and compact; Halberstam has excised some of the plot complications and story inconsistencies that have long bothered scholars and stymied directors. He has modernized the language to a certain extent, and has removed period references.
These changes shorten the work to two hours and 10 minutes in length and aid the audience in understanding it on a literal level; Duke Ferdinand's unrealized incestuous passion for his sister, the perceived dishonor of the Duchess marrying below her station, and the fact that the Duchess has thwarted her brothers are all made very clear. However, some important exposition and character development have been sacrificed in the process. We never learn, for example, that the double-dealing Bosola is a former galley slave and a foreigner, which is significant to understanding his cold-blooded nature. Scenes establishing the Duchess's independent will are sacrificed for the sake of rapid plot deployment, and the modernized gives little indication of why Webster is considered a gifted dramatic poet with a more modern cadence than Shakespeare; his rich verse has been streamlined to the point where it now seems too conversational.
The production also eliminates spectacle by cutting or combining all of the secondary and minor characters; what we have left are just two noblemen and two noblewomen. Though this is largely a domestic story, its private passions are heightened when played against pageantry, but the characters' outsized emotions are missing here.
Writers' Theatre has mounted a handsome physical production that's vaguely classical in style. Matt York's scenic design features a marbleized Renaissance palazzo floor accented with a bright red staircase and gallery that suggest modernism. Likewise, Tatjana Radisic's fanciful costumes colorfully suggest many eras and styles without specific historic reference; for instance only the Cardinal's red shoes suggest the link between the man and his office.
Halberstam has assembled a cast of fine actors but he doesn't let them cut loose. The handsome Elizabeth Rich as the Duchess and Nicolas Sandys as the Cardinal carry off their roles primarily through stage presence. James Meredith as Antonio and La Shawn Banks as his confidant bring a casual stateliness to their roles. As Bosola, Matt Kozlowski lacks the necessary edge as sardonic commentator or vicious thug. More problematic still is Christopher McLinden as Duke Ferdinand; rather than playing against his Edwardian schoolboy looks through intense rage and overt physical threat, he's all understatement and moderation, which makes Ferdinand less than believable as a threat to his sister.
Whatever its flaws, Writer's Theatre's take on The Duchess of Malfi has intelligence and integrity. Certainly, it's better to see an ambitious if not entirely successful attempt at this play than not to see one at all.