Jesse Berger’s bloody adaptation of The Duchess of Malfi for his Red Bull Theater, which specializes in playwrights who toiled in Shakespeare’s shadow, is a respectable, if not completely satisfying, staging of Webster’s masterpiece about the perils of seeking normalcy and happiness in a state of moral and spiritual corruption. His production, drenched in gore and provided with dim lighting—and swaths of blackness—by designer Jason Lyons, seems to take its tone from Webster’s imagery of crawling things, like snakes, salamanders, leeches, and lice. Three siblings are at the core of the action. The vivacious Duchess, newly widowed, resides with two brothers, Duke Frederick (Gareth Saxe) and the Cardinal of Aragon (Patrick Page). Both caution the Duchess not to marry again, partly because they want control of her wealth, and perhaps in the dissolute Frederick’s case—he first appears with a bad case of bedhead and a hangover—because of something unhealthier. The Cardinal, however, is cut from the same cloth; he has a mistress, Julia (Heidi Armbruster), the loose wife of another courtier.
But Rouner’s Duchess has already fallen for Matthew Greer’s open, fresh-faced steward Antonio and intends to marry him. (Webster rather boldly dismisses their class differences.) She woos him in a subtly comic scene and weds him in a secret ceremony of pledged troths. Meanwhile, her brothers have assigned a hireling named Bosola (Matthew Rauch) to her household as a spy. As Webster’s plot swiftly advances, Bosola reports that the Duchess has had three children, but it takes longer to determine the father—until she betrays herself by trusting him too much.
Bosola, in fact, is arguably the real tragic hero, a man caught in the net of his own ambition. Once a scholar in Padua, according to Antonio’s friend Delio (Haynes Thigpen), Bosola has a grudge against Page’s smooth, wily Cardinal, for whom he did something underhanded that landed him in the galleys as a slave for two years. Still, his will to get ahead knows no bounds, so he hitches his wagon to the star of his betrayer, who passes him along to Ferdinand. As Antonio notes, Bosola “would be as lecherous, covetous, or proud/Bloody or envious, as any man/If he had means to be so.”
Bosola’s compromised nature suggests the dangers of a world where evil thrives and decent people fall easily into temptation. If Bosola initially seems a bit too like Iago, one discovers in the second half that he has a lot more gray area. Rauch finds the layers as the spy has misgivings about his work. By turns he’s witty, eager for advancement, and appalled.
Berger’s production goes for a minimalist look that’s alternately garish and grim. Beowulf Borritt’s sets underscore the nature of the state. In the first act everything from walls to chairs is covered or wrapped in what looks like a bright pink vinyl shower curtain. It’s ugly and cheap, yet there are flecks of gold design in it, and lighted a certain way, it can seem pleasant. When it’s pulled down late in Act I, a network of scaffolding is revealed, stark and dark, with courtiers dressed by Jared B. Leese in gray riot gear. (The pulling-down flourish has become a cliché, however: my companion pointed out that it was employed the last time he accompanied me to the theater.) An awkward element is the use of a central platform that actors have to jump from and hoist themselves onto throughout the play.
Some moments can seem ludicrous, but even the most bizarre make sense. Ferdinand confines the Duchess to a madhouse, where her dress has been shredded into that of a B-movie starlet in a low-budget horror film, appropriate for this potboiler. In a fever dream, she is beset by the lunatics, rises amid them, and sings a Rodgers & Hart song as they perform dances à la the June Taylor dancers. It’s outrageous, but it works. (And it's all in Webster, apart from the choice of song.)
Berger himself has pruned the jagged verse into a softer, more flowing text, spoken commandingly and usually clearly by a fine cast. Saxe is an effectively dislikable and unbalanced Ferdinand (though he might make more of the incest that’s inherent in the character), and Armbruster as Julia is marvelously seductive and willful in the small role; Carol Halstead also shines as Cariola, the Duchess’s loyal, bawdy, superstitious servant.
Rouner’s Duchess is problematic, though; somehow she never summons the sympathy one needs to feel. Her plan to marry Antonio against her brothers’ wishes indicates a cunning at odds with her tragic fall, for which more naïveté seems necessary. She’s also tall and imposing, which undercuts a sense of grandeur regained when she delivers her famous defiant line, “I am Duchess of Malfi still.”
But Berger’s untraditional staging, in spite of some lagging in the second half, gives full rein to the horrors of Webster’s morbid imagination. If your taste runs to stabbings, poisonings, stranglings, severed hands, and even lycanthropy, this is your cup of wormwood.