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|Red Bull: Duchess of Malfi|
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 21.0108 Thursday, 11 March 2010
From: Hardy M. Cook <
March 9, 2010
When it comes to Renaissance-era tales of forbidden love set in Italy, Juliet had it easy.
Her relatives might not have been terribly supportive of her choice in men, but at least they didn't send killers and spies her way. Nor were they so upset that she wanted to marry beneath her station that they tossed her in prison. The title character in John Webster's "Duchess of Malfi" paid dearly for not heeding the warnings of her bullying brothers Ferdinand (Gareth Saxe) and Cardinal (Patrick Page), and the resulting bloodbath is so vastly out of proportion that it makes you wonder why this 17th-century drama hasn't been turned into a feminist exploitation movie.
The Duchess could be played as a caged bird with reined-in passions, but in the muddled production by the Red Bull Theater, Christina Rouner brings an imperial coolness to the boiling drama. "The misery of us that are born great!" she says with notes of entitlement and self-pity. "We are forced to woo because none dare woo us."
This messy feast of a play blends genres, hints at enough political, religious and sexual themes to suggest all kinds of modernizing possibilities and incorporates some truly preposterous twists. While Jesse Berger's sleek staging showcases a capable cast with a sure sense of diction, the production remains a bit undercooked. The style is a kind of wishy-washy modern minimalism.
Jared B. Leese's costumes are contemporary but sometimes off point (a white jacket seems from the 1980s), Beowulf Boritt's set design is modest and elegant and the stage pictures clean. There were several technical glitches on the night I attended, but the main problem with the show was not its errors so much as a lack of a clear focus.
The second act includes appearances of a werewolf and a severed limb - prodigious, sensational macabre excesses that are neither subtly psychological nor laughably over-the-top. (For a much better dead hand, see "A Behanding in Spokane.") The performances, besides the precise work of Ms. Rouner, are well-spoken but broad and devoid of eccentricity.
The Red Bull should be given credit for avoiding cheap gimmicks, but there's a lack of a point of view that, because the play itself is so absurd, allows the flamboyance of the violence to become unhinged from its impact, turning what could be brutal tragedy into occasionally unintentional comedy. With more time the show could gain its footing, but for now it appears in the process of being explored rather than already discovered.
"The Duchess of Malfi" runs through March 28 at the Theater at St. Clement's, 423 West 46th Street, Manhattan; (212) 352-3101; redbulltheater.com.
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