The Duchess of Malfi

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Sunday January 11, 2009

"Milady...?" Karl Baker Olson, Jennie Israel, and David Rosenblatt in a scene from "The Duchess of Malfi"
"Milady...?" Karl Baker Olson, Jennie Israel, and David Rosenblatt in a scene from "The Duchess of Malfi"  (Source:Stratton McCrady)

For the first time in its five-year history, Boston theatrical troupe The Actors' Shakespeare Project has departed from the works of The Bard. The Duchess of Malfi, by John Webster, is, the program notes inform us, regarded as the finest example of Jacobean theater outside of Shakespeare.

That's a pretty big comparison to draw, and to the modern eye the results are mixed: the production exceeds the company's always-high creative standards, and David Gammons' direction makes the work accessible to a modern audience. But the play veers into dark, grisly comedy at points where Jacobean audiences would probably have gasped with shock and horror.

That's not to say that The Duchess of Malfi is a laugh-riot, though it does have moments of humor, some of which is due to how the material is allowed to breathe and move, and to touch on some pretty contemporary stuff despite being set in 1504.

The Duchess (Jennie Israel) has been left widowed at the tender age of 19. Her brothers--Ferdinand, the Duke of Calabria (Michael Forden Walker) and the Cardinal (Joel Colodner)--wish to prevent her from re-marrying. In part, their concern stems from a wish to protect the family honor; when the Duchess takes on a new husband without their knowledge or permission (and in a private "ceremony" free from officials of church or state no less), and subsequently becomes pregnant, the brothers are thrown into a fury, especially Ferdinand, who is the Duchess' twin and whose attachment to her starts to seem more than a little bit creepy.

What the brothers have not yet learned, however, is that the man the Duchess has married is of a lower social class: Antonio Bologna (Jason Bowen) is still nobility, but his family does not rank as high in the social order. This, evidently, is a black mark on the dignity of the Duchess' entire clan.

The Duchess knows all of this, and takes pains to conceal her new family life from her brothers. What she doesn't realize is that her new servant in charge of security (the "head" of her "horse"), Daniel de Bosola (Bill Barclay) is a spy sent by the cardinal.

What the cardinal doesn't realize, however, is that Bosola is a man of principle and of honor, and his own debasement as an "intelligencer" for pay weighs heavily upon him. When events take one dishonorable turn too many, Bosola's conscience gets the better of him, and tragedy results.

Webster based the play on the true story of a Neapolitan noble family, and the apparent facts of the case lead the playwright to critiques of the Catholic cardinal (and by extension the excesses of the church), as well as of the aristocracy in general. Gammons and the cast take the script as a starting point, adding in gestures and insinuations that a contemporary audience can appreciate.

The set (by Gammons), light (by Jeff Adelberg), and sound (by Cameron Willard) all mesh flawlessly, creating a tone and an atmosphere that is part haunted house (dig the human bones beneath the floorboards: they don't come into play in the story, but they do tell us a thing or two about life at court) and part family driven political thriller.

Webster's play doesn't reach Shakespeare's level of psychological sophistication, but it does address similar themes. Insanity abounds: madmen sport in the halls, Ferdinand himself takes it into his head that he's a wolf (leading to some terrific lupine moments by Walker, including a furious attack on a physician that ends with a gruesome nose-biting), and everyone references Hell continuously, both as a theological torment and as a description of their own inner beings.

The play has plenty of garish elements; in addition to the nose-chomping, there's a bit of business involving psychological torture and a severed arm, a few references to sexual predators among the clergy, a murder by way of a poisoned Bible, and a hair-raising strangulation scene. Gammons reigns it all in, imposing a rigorous, often geometrical discipline on the play's blocking and overseeing split-second timing on lighting and sound cues.

Such careful preparation pays off: events move along with the momentum of a Greek tragedy, charging along unstoppably. The cast do some fine work: Forden plays Ferdinand as a man in a constant cold sweat punctuated by bursts of absolute rage, while Colodner's calculating bishop lives up to an early description of being a man who is "able to possess the greatest devil--and make him worse!"

Karl Baker Olson and David Rosenblatt take on multiple roles, including that of a pair of lunatics; the cardinal's man-hungry mistress is played with feverish intensity by Marya Lowry, who doubles as the Duchess' faithful-unto-death maid; and James Patrick Nelson has only a few scenes as Delio, Antonio's friend, but he makes his moments memorable.

Under Gammons' direction, and in the unique Midway Studios location, "The Duchess of Malfi" is pure theatrical spectacle. Still, when the Actors' Shakespeare Project returns to the Bard in March with a staging of "Coriolanus," it'll be a welcome return to the Shakespearean canon. There's plenty to esteem about Webster's play... but there's nothing like the Bard.

"The Duchess of Malfi" runs through February 1 at Midway Studios, 15 Channel Center Street (formerly Midway Street) in Boston.

Performance schedule: Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 2:00 and 7:30 p.m.; Sundays at 2:00 p.m. There will also be a 1:00 p.m. performance on Wednesday, Jan. 21.

Tickets cost $25-$47 and can be obtained online at or via phone at 866-811-4111.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.