BOTTOM LINE: This visually stunning production of a very difficult to master classical work shows great potential.
Since it was founded in 2003, the Red Bull Theater has gained the reputation of being NYC's premiere off-Broadway scene for classical, lesser produced works. Their most recent production is John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, the story of a widowed Duchess who disobeys her brothers' orders not to remarry by secretly marrying her servant. The play, directed by the company's Founding Artistic Director Jesse Berger, does not disappoint despite parts of Berger's interpretation that confuse rather than clarify. There are some wonderful performances and, overall, Berger directs this intriguing and exciting production with gusto.
Webster, like his Jacobean contemporaries, wrote in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter). He is known for his gore and strong female characters. Webster is touted as perhaps the only playwright to rival Shakespeare when it comes to tragedy. He is not known, however, for structural prowess. This might explain why less of his work is produced today than his aforementioned predecessor. On the other hand, this leaves room for the modern director to interpret and get a little creative.
Berger takes advantage of this within the opening moments of the play. Staging a beautiful, nonverbal sequence of action, he provides his own analytical insight into the character of the Duchess (Christine Rouner). Rouner disrobes her mourning attire, stands naked in silhouette, then is reborn: a woman innocent in her prime. Another stunning visual effect is when the gorgeous gold and red damask set comes crumbling around the Duchess after her secret is revealed. Berger takes dramatic liberty with a nod to the synchronized swimming in a song and dance number. He adds even more interpretation with exceptionally gory murders of the Duchess's youngest children. Berger has a talent for creating stunning stage pictures such as these that speak volumes. I only wish he had done so with every aspect of the play.
He does little to clarify the relationship between the Duchess and her brothers, the Cardinal (Patrick Page) and her twin brother Ferdinand (Gareth Saxe) or her relationship with betrothed Antonio (Matthew Greer). Instead Berger further confuses the issue by adding a touch of domestic violence between the Cardinal and his mistress, Julia (Heidi Armbruster), an overtly sexual but ultimately uninteresting character. Berger seems to ignore Ferdinand's incestuous feelings for his sister, thereby only allowing him to be a one-dimensional, angry, crazy man.
Though I wish the brothers where a bit more well-rounded, both Page and Saxe do a wonderful job finding humor where they can. Page, in particular, is a master at finding the humor within his villain. Rouner's performance is heartfelt and regal and Greer provides a charming and strong leading man for her. Matthew Rauch, as the remorseful double agent Bosola, demonstrates versatility in his ability to flip flop between good and bad, playing the line between showing the audience how he feels and not revealing to the audience what he will do next.
Though there are parts of this production that could be more clear, it is well put together and shows great potential. In his director's note, Berger shares that he would like to work on The Duchess of Malfi again and says, "It is a play that deserves and perhaps requires multiple hearings for us to truly begin to ascertain its power." After seeing what he has achieved with this production, I couldn't agree more and would love to see what Berger could do with it in the future.
(The Duchess of Malfi plays at Theatre at St. Clement's, 423 West 46th Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues, through March 28th. Performances are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7pm, Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm and Sunday at 3pm and 7pm. Schedule varies - visit redbulltheater.com for the complete calendar. Tickets are $60, with $80 tickets for premium seating and $30 tickets for those 30 and under with ID. You can also get $30 industry tickets with ID and $20 student tickets with ID. There is also a 20% discount for seniors. All discounts must be purchased at the box office one hour before curtain time. For tickets and more info visit redbulltheater.com or call 212.352.3101.)