The Duchess of Malfi
Jesse Berger's production of John Webster's revenge tragedy doesn't do justice to the work.
Indeed, the ingrained and invasive malevolence called for from the cynical and infuriated depiction of a corrupt court all but completely escapes Berger's treatment of the work. Instead, the play is staged more like censorious comments hurled during shallow 21st-century cocktail parties.
This isn't to say that some of Berger's cast members don't give the impression they're up to the mark. Matthew Rauch, one of our most consistently forceful thespians in classic plays, brings the right kind of menace and troubled conscience to the role of Bosola, a hired killer who begins to worry about the expediency with which he snuffs out lives. Gareth Saxe speaks his pithy lines with authority as Ferdinand, one of those homicidal brothers; while Patrick Page as the other brother, a Cardinal as corrosive as they come, musters frightening conviction.
In tandem, though, the rest of the cast simply hasn't the craft to carry off an assignment that isn't helped by some of Berger's directorial notions. The production's low point -- a truly jawdropping one -- is a second-act sequence that comes from nowhere when the assailed Duchess (the less-than-regal Christine Rouner) is imprisoned and a sorry sight in her tattered finery. Suddenly, a microphone on a wire descends. The Duchess, apparently having a dream of wishful release, grabs it to go into a Busby Berkeley routine choreographed by Tracy Bersley that has others in the cast lying on their backs and twisting in formation like eager dames surrounding a daft Ruby Keeler. Eventually, they grab top hats and form a kick-line. Ugh!
At least the cast does rise -- or perhaps "collapse" is the better word -- to their death scenes. Indeed, the series of onstage demises virtually turns into a who-can-gasp-last-gasps-best competition. Webster arranged it so that characters are garroted, stabbed, shot or poisoned (by kissing a book, no less), and the throes that follow these assaults are definitely hair-raising. (Not to mention the homoerotic way Ferdinand knifes his brother.)