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The Duchess of Malfi

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Christina Rouner and Gareth Saxe.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Mix Jacobean tragedy with musical theatre and you get, unsurprisingly, a jumble. When, in the second half of the Red Bull Theatre Company's production of The Duchess of Malfi at the Theatre at St. Clement's, the play's characters assemble in the jail cell of the titular noble (Christina Rouner) to perform Rodgers and Hart's "I Love You More than Yesterday" (from the 1929 musical Lady Fingers) as a Busby Berkeley spectacular minus only Esther Williams, it's clear you're not in Italy anymore. Where exactly you are, alas, is not something that director-adapter Jesse Berger makes particularly clear.

Yes, it's obvious that the number is not supposed to be taken literally, and is instead a psychedelic manifestation of the Duchess's love for her onetime-servant husband, Antonio (Matthew Greer), that compelled her brothers Ferdinand (Gareth Saxe) and the Cardinal of Aragon (Patrick Page) to imprison her in the first place. But the style is so out of joint from the play - and the highly accomplished performances - surrounding it that the effect is discomforting for the wrong reasons. And it's far from the only example of it in the production.

One has the right and even the responsibility to anticipate this from Red Bull, which routinely twists the bloody classics of Shakespeare and his contemporaries into something recognizable, and usually more than a little comic, to modern eyes. But Berger, the company's founding artistic director, has in the past chosen works that are better suited to this treatment. The Revenger's Tragedy, Christopher Marlowe's Edward II, and Thomas Middleton's Women Beware Women are a bit more on the edge, with situations that more easily allow for the melodramatic deconstruction that seems to be Berger's specialty.

But with The Duchess of Malfi, John Webster spun a more traditional story that played off its own salaciousness but didn't necessarily give into it. Its last third is as riddled with death and/or dismemberment as Shakespeare's grislier works, but emanates from no less believable an emotional place. The various stranglings, slashings, stabbings, and other methods of execution that Berger employs here leaves much of the stage floor covered in red, with the audience barely able (and barely expected) to control its titterings at observing the carnage.

The result is an evening that, despite being rambunctiously involving, doesn't do too much to help you invest in the particulars of its story. Were it not for one striking and instantaneous change of Beowulf Boritt's set - from velvet-draped palace to bare iron bars - the first half would contain almost no bursts of recognizable emotion. Though Webster did not wield a light hand with the exposition, it should be able to convey a better sense of the lives it will soon make (and more likely destroy) than it does here. And when the violence finally hits in full force later, it probably shouldn't play like auditions for a bus-and-truck tour of Sweeney Todd.

The trouble is not with the actors - when left alone, they do marvelous work. Rouner is a dire delight as the Duchess, fire and flowers one minute and stone cold the next, and maintaining throughout a captivating grace and energy. Saxe is suitably slimy as the scheming Duke and Page a model of restraint as the corrupt Cardinal; Greer brings a soft, simple touch to the romantic Antonio that appropriately casts the character as different from the royal stooges surrounding him. Matthew Rauch is a force of nature as the thoughtful and melancholy spy Bosola, charging through his scenes (and often across the stage) with the stamina of a marathon runner; and Carol Halstead finds an appealing intelligence in the Duchess's servant, Cariola.

So committed are the performers that they're almost able to act around Berger's ornamentations. They come very close to finding the soul of a story about class warfare, entitlement, and revenge, things that - even or especially today - should be no laughing matter. In this movie-of-the-week version of The Duchess of Malfi, however, they all too frequently are.

The Duchess of Malfi
Through March 14
Theatre at St. Clements, 423 West 46th Street
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