Review: ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ at Brave Spirits Theater

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Words have lethal consequences in the clear-eyed, unflinching production of The Duchess of Malfi from Brave Spirits Theatre. Under the sure-handed direction of Casey Kaleba, The Duchess of Malfi is top-notch theatre full of verbal wrath, physical terror and compelling characters. It is gripping for any and all to seek out and savor.

Katie Culligan as the Duchess. Photo by Claire Kimball
Katie Culligan as the Duchess. Photo by Claire Kimball

First published in 1623, John Webster’s Jacobean tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi hits many a contemporary button in its tale about two powerful brothers who decide to make an honor killing of their own sister, the Duchess of Malfi.

What was the Duchess’ crime? Well, she is not submissive to her controlling brothers. She confounds her brothers by remarrying soon after the death of her first husband. She commits a most serious crime in her brothers’ minds by both marrying without their permission and to a man of lower status. Then she has the boldness to have children with her new husband. By having children, the noble family line and fortunes would pass to her children, not to either of her childless brothers. As the Duchess says, “If all my royal kindred/ Lay in my way unto this marriage/ I’d make them my low foot-steps.”

Adding to the contemporary air of The Duchess of Malfi is that the Duchess further flummoxes her venomous, misogynist brothers by not being a brooding, dithering Hamlet-like creature. The Duchess is a woman who acts with zeal to fulfill her own desires for love and intimacy. Such a slap in the face to brothers who speak this about their sister: “Damn her, that body of hers.”

What makes the Brave Spirits production of The Duchess of Malfi riveting is the driving characterizations from a talented cast.

As the Duchess, Katie Culligan is no shrill shrew even when her brothers are at their worst. Culligan gives her audacious Duchess character a calm center covered by a boundless nature; visible sensuality, brave confidence, and yes, impetuousness too. Even in the darkest of hours, as the Duchess, Culligan shows little desperation, remaining noble even as her brothers and the world conspire against her: “I am Duchess of Malfi still.”  

As sniveling co-conspirators, the two brothers include Ian Blackwell Rogers as Ferdinand, the Duke of Calabria. Rogers is at his best when in a deranged state of mind and emotionally over-the-top. His scenes featuring physical coarseness and psychosocial devastation are high points of a Grand Guignol performance style. He makes a deranged being come alive just a few feet from the audience. Yet he is not overwrought as he falls off the edge of sanity.

The second brother is a perverse, corrupt Cardinal portrayed by Steve Lebens. He cuts an arresting figure who wears the scarlet sash of his Church high station (Madeline Belknap costume designer) with delight and even more pleasure when he takes it off to enjoy some amusement like butchery or carnal sex. Lebens comes off as a Cardinal who celebrates his sexually lustful life. Lebens intimidates with a commanding baritone voice full of menace and barbarous orders.

Ian Blackwell Rogers as Ferdinand and Steve Lebens as the Cardinal. Photo by Claire Kimball
Ian Blackwell Rogers as Ferdinand and Steve Lebens as the Cardinal. Photo by Claire Kimball

Then there is Bosola, a servant who is used by Ferdinand and the Cardinal to befriend and spy on the Duchess. Played by Rebecca Speas, Bosola is who follows orders expecting a pay-off of some kind. Too late, Bosola finds a conscience and shame to ponder how to take revenge for the distress she causes the Duchess. As Bosola, Speas travels the most psychological distance in The Duchess of Malfi wondering whether all that happens “shalt [it] end in a little point, a kind of nothing.”

In other key roles is Jared H. Graham as Antonio the loving, compliant man the Duchess loves and marries. Adrianne Knapp is the Cardinal’s coyly seductive mistress who asks one question too many. Musa Gurnis is the Duchess’ loyal waiting woman in a drama in which such loyalty begets consequences.

The spare set is a utilitarian minimalist design with Daniel Mori the set consultant. Several doors and a trap door are used with theatrical effect. The lighting design by Alex Brady adds fine spookiness to the nastiness of so much of the aura of the Brave Spirits’ The Duchess of Malfi. Belknap uses mostly modern attire for the Malfi characters, with one arresting use of straight-jackets for a mad-hatter of a group musical and dance routine.

The Duchess of Malfi is a full-throated shout against high crimes and misdemeanors and political corruption as well as a loud cry from the heart about the oppression of women who want to make their own choices and have their own agency. It is a production to appreciate for its lush language as well as its ghastly acts of cruelty and insanity. It is a production that provides an over 400-year-old take on collusion. It was a tragedy written to incite, and the Brave Spirits production does just that.

Running time: About two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.

The Duchess of Malfi runs through November 18th, 2018, at The Lab at Convergence Theatre – 1819 North Quaker Lane, in Alexandria, VA. To purchase tickets, go online.

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Metro Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.

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