Review: The Duchess of Malfi (Strawdog Theatre)

| April 24, 2012
Lindsey Dorcus, Justine C. Turner, Joshua Davis, Stephen Dunn in Strawdog Theatre's "The Duchess of Malfi", directed by Brandon Bruce. (photo credit: Chris Ocken)       
The Duchess of Malfi 

Written by John Webster
Directed by Brandon Bruce  
at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map)
thru May 26   |  tickets: $28   |  more info
Check for half-price tickets 
        Read entire review


Revenge tragedy solid but overthought


Andrew Goetten, Kyle A. Gibson, Lindsey Dorcus, Justine C. Turner , Paul Fagen, Nigel Brown in Strawdog Theatre's "The Duchess of Malfi", directed by Brandon Bruce. (photo credit: Chris Ocken)

Strawdog Theatre presents
The Duchess of Malfi

Review by Lauren Whalen 

Interpreting a classical text is not for the faint of heart or brain. Indeed, Strawdog Theatre Company’s The Duchess of Malfi shows nothing but thought, from the production’s meticulous three-quarter staging to its artful masks and props. And maybe that’s the issue: too much thought, like an overdose of anything good, can result in an air of calculation and lack of organic spontaneity. Though it boasts beautiful production values and skilled performances, The Duchess of Malfi is an example of over-analysis gone over the top.

Kyle A. Gibson, Michael Sherwin, Joshua Davis, Andrew Goetten, Paul Fagen in Strawdog Theatre's "The Duchess of Malfi", directed by Brandon Bruce. (photo credit: Chris Ocken)In Brandon Bruce and Christine Scarfuto’s new adaptation of John Webster’s revenge tragedy, love and death often collide with bloody results. Based on actual events in the Italian Court of the 16th century, Duchess chronicles the struggles of its title character (Justine C. Turner). Widowed and childless, she defies her brothers – the stately Cardinal (Christopher M. Walsh) and the wildcat Ferdinand (John Taflan) by secretly marrying and procreating with Antonio (Stephen Dunn). Though the brothers use Christian piety as an excuse for isolating their sister, their true motives (namely, greed and lust) soon come to light and a nasty string of violent events ensues.

Director Brandon Bruce, who co-adapted the text with Scarfuto, has employed a very precise thought process with Duchess. Besides thoughtfully staging the show to the exact specifications of Strawdog’s studio space, Bruce has assembled a crack production team. With its glorious faux-marble floor and draping white cloths, Joe Schermoly’s set design is both bare bones and elaborate, conveying palatial estates and prison cells with artistic aplomb. Aly Renee Amidei’s masks are haunting works of art and her makeup design casts a sinister pallor over each character. Mike Przygoda’s sound design relies on the actors themselves providing live accompaniment, keeping the audience completely in the moment. And Joanna Melville’s costume design consists of rich velvets and stark white gowns (though a very noticeable zipper seems out of place in the 16th-century setting).

Bruce’s direction of the cast ranges from smartly subtle to completely exaggerated, leading to an unfortunate inconsistency. The male chorus members especially are too loud and broad in their delivery and gestures, and clearly talented actors are reduced to cartoons. When it comes to Taflan’s Ferdinand, is it really necessary to have him loudly kiss the Duchess’ hand every time he sees her? Walsh’s Cardinal has the opposite problem: his constant stoicism grows dull.

Andrew Goetten, John Taflan, Justine C. Turner, Kyle A. Gibson in Strawdog Theatre's "The Duchess of Malfi", directed by Brandon Bruce. (photo credit: Chris Ocken)

Thankfully, other actors fare better. Dunn’s Antonio is a genuinely devoted individual in a sticky situation, and invites gentle empathy. Cate Davison is at once scary and sexy as the sole female chorus member, nimbly portraying several roles in the course of the play. McKenzie Chinn quietly shines as the Cardinal’s mistress Julia, and Lindsey Dorcus provides comic relief as Cariola, the Duchess’ fiercely loyal maid. The most pleasurable to behold are Turner and Joshua Davis. Turner brings a stately thoughtfulness to the trapped Duchess, a pillar of strength with more than one trick up her sleeve. As the duplicitous Borsola, Davis knows just when to incorporate dark humor and tortured pathos. Davis doesn’t just recite the text: he attacks it, with the utmost care and respect for Borsola’s inner battles.

Any competent director will present a play with an eye toward the audience: will they understand the play? Appreciate it? Walk away with the play on their mind, sleep on it, ponder it the next day? Bruce is more than competent with The Duchess of Malfi : the play’s themes and images are stark and haunting. However, there’s also a degree of trust at play: believing in your audience’s intelligence and ability to grasp the text and interpret it for themselves. Though it’s beautifully presented and performed, Duchess is sorely missing this degree of trust. A little subtlety goes a long way.

Rating: ★★★

The Duchess of Malfi continues through May 26th at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays 4pm.  Tickets are $28, and are available by phone (866-811-4111) or online at (check for half-price tickets at More information at time: 2 hours 20 minutes, includes a 10-minute intermission)

Joshua Davis, Lindsey Dorcus, Justine C. Turner, Paul Fagen in Strawdog Theatre's "The Duchess of Malfi", directed by Brandon Bruce. (photo credit: Chris Ocken)

All photos by Chris Ocken 




Justine C. Turner (The Duchess of Malfi), Stephen Dunn (Antonio), Christopher M. Walsh (The Cardinal), John Taflan (Ferdinand), McKenzie Chinn (Julia), Joshua Davis (Bosola), Lindsey Dorcus (Cariola), Cate Davison (Chorus/Delia), Paul Fagen (Chorus/Castruchio), Kyle A. Gibson (Chorus/Doctor), Nigel Brown (Chorus/Silvio), Andrew Goetten (Chorus/Malateste), Michael Sherwin (Chorus/Pescara)

behind the scenes

Brandon Bruce (director, co-adaptor, co-fight choreographer); Mike Przygoda (sound design, music composition); Joanna Melville (costumes); Jordan Kardasz (lighting); Christopher M. Walsh (co-fight choreographer); Aly Renee Amidei (makeup, mask and hair design); Scott T. Barsotti (movement); Anna Brenner (asst. director, dramaturg); Joe Schermoly (set design); Mary O’Dowd (props); Matt Buettner (tech director); Lindsey Miller (stage manager); Liz Fiala (asst. stage manager); Dan Laushman (master electrician); Kyle Hamman (production manager); Chris Ocken (photos)


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Category: 2012 Reviews, Adaptation, Lauren Whalen, Strawdog Theatre

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