"The Duchess of Malfi" (Strawdog Theatre): Innovation and Convolution

"The Duchess of Malfi" (Strawdog Theatre):  Innovation and Convolution

Do you not weep?
Other sins only speak; murder shrieks out.
The element of water moistens the earth,
But blood flies upwards and bedews the heavens.  -”The Duchess of Malfi”

#88.  Strawdog Theatre presents a new adaptation of John Webster’s THE DUCHESS OF MALFI.  It’s 16th Century Court-side in Italy.  The Duchess is a widow.  Her brothers, The Cardinal and Ferdinand, demand her to remain one.  For the country, it looks good.  The unmarried Duchess will be a symbol of Christian piety.  But for the brothers, it’s really about greed and incestual lust.  The Duchess decides to marry anyway but in secret and below her station.  She’s happy living her lie.  In her concealed wedded bliss, she has three children.  The brothers find out about her deception.  The duplicity causes a royal upheaval.  And revenge brings a crazy spiral of bloodshed.  THE DUCHESS OF MALFI defies the family and gets royally bitchslapped.

Acting as director and co-adapter, new Artistic Director Brandon Bruce boldly begins his tenure at Strawdog. Bruce works with Christine Scarfuto to adapt John Webster’s story for contemporary audiences.  The ambitious undertaking results in innovation and convolution.  A chorus of five men and one woman add a level of imaginative comedy and whimsy.  Dressed in togas with wild hair and makeup (Joanne Melville-costumes and Aly Renee Amidei-makeup/hair), the ever present group add a quirky and mysterious dimension.  Their choreographed movement makes them appear to be apparitions or muses.  They are fascinating to watch.  In particular, Cate Davison haunts the stage with a subtle but statuesque presence.  I’m so engrossed in these figments’ antics I lose track of the real storyline.   And the real storyline is a doozy!

John Webster loosely based his comprehensive story on a15th Century regal scandal.  The truth is always weirder than fiction.  And this story’s truths are mired with falsehoods.   There is a lot of lying in this show.  And that adds to the confusion. Is she married is she not?  Is he dead is he not?  The complex family dysfunction makes the dramatic twists almost soap opera-ic.  In a particular engaging banter, between an over-the-top John Taflan (Ferdinand) and a steadfast Joshua Davis (Bosola), the mendacity hits the fan with something-is-rotten-in-Italy absurdity.  These moments of true clarity are sporadic for me throughout the play.  I’m not always certain who is who.  And whether they are dead or alive.  And how do they know the Duchess?

Brandon Bruce put it all out there to begin his reign at Strawdog.  THE DUCHESS OF MALFI is a visual spectacle.  With some streamlining and tightening, the revenge rampage will be more bloody, less messy.  Meanwhile for this current production, I recommend a pre-show wikipedia visit to enhance your enjoyment.

Choosing Strawdog over basketball, Joshua J. Volkers describes it with ‘a confusing epic.’

Running Time:  Two hours and twenty-five minutes includes an intermission

At Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway Street

Based on John Webster’s “The Duchess of Malfi”

Adapted by Brandon Bruce and Christine Scarfuto

Directed by Brandon Bruce

Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8pm

Sundays at 4pm

Thru May 26th

Buy Tickets at www.strawdog.org

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