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The Duchess of Malfi

Jesse Berger's production of John Webster's revenge tragedy doesn't do justice to the work. logo
Christina Rouner and Gareth Saxe
in The Duchess of Malfi
(© Carol Rosegg)
John Webster's revenge tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, now being presented by the Red Bull Theater at St. Clement's, isn't the easiest kind of Jacobean item to pull off. Sadly, the usually reliable director Jesse Berger hasn't done his usual job of making the play -- in which an aristocratic woman is hounded to death by her brothers for having married against their money-grubbing wishes -- cogent.

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.)

The production design is little help. The usually inventive Beowulf Boritt drapes a tall metal jungle-gym in cheap-looking red fabric (perhaps meant to suggest the imminent copious bloodletting) that falls -- as an unimpressive coup de theatre -- at a specified point. Jared B. Leese dresses the cast in a mix of period and contemporary clothes that don't articulate much. Perhaps if the actors had been wardrobed entirely in early 17th-century clothes, they would have been motivated to move and behave in a more era-appropriate manner.

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