You have to respect a company that includes a program credit for “violence.” And there it is, right up there with lighting and sound in the tech lineup for “The Duchess of Malfi.” But that’s Red Bull for you, a company that takes as its touchstone Jacobean melodramas by the likes of Webster, Ford and Tourneur, while developing contempo plays of the same feverish ilk. True to form, Jesse Berger’s production of John Webster’s blood-and-guts tragedy best honors the play’s flamboyant murders and mutilations. And even when the sub-par acting mars the effect, the ensemble players relish the juicy language.
Designer Beowulf Boritt lets us know what we’re in for with a smothering set of wall-to-wall red damask draperies that’s so over-the-top you can feel the air being sucked out of the house.
It’s against this claustrophobic background that we become aware of the unhealthy atmosphere at the court of Duke Ferdinand (Gareth Saxe) of Calabria. The Duke’s unacknowledged incestuous passion for his twin sister, the Duchess of Malfi (Christina Rouner), touches off the bloodbath of a plot. But it takes a true villain — their brother, the debauched Cardinal of Aragon (Patrick Page) — to put the machinery in motion.
Structurally, the machinations are creaky, but Berger’s adaptation strides briskly through the setups to get to the lush lyricism of Webster’s language. While the stagy acting style is less than subtle, the thesps in this company have such a high level of comfort with the period idiom that vocal eloquence invariably trumps characterization.
But oratory only gets you so far in Jacobean tragedy, and the lack of passion expended on this steamy yarn of sexual perversion has a numbing effect.
Rouner is entirely too bland as the Duchess who innocently inflames these perverse passions in her brother. While Saxe is convincingly crazy as the Duke, he seems oddly detached from the object of his incestuous inclinations. Page’s Aragon is more engaged, but mainly to the entrancing sound of his own voice.
Only Matthew Rauch, as the Cardinal’s spy, Bosola, actually indicates some genuine human emotion as he observes the dark doings in the royal household.
But enough of such mundane matters as characterization and motive. What you really want to know is how the company carries off all those murders and mutilations.
Very well, actually, once those damask curtains come down and reveal the play’s cold steel underpinnings. The Duchess’s famously lengthy death scene is accomplished in high style. The quadruple killings in the final scene are suitably gory, and someone standing behind a plastic tarp does a terrific job of bashing an infant’s head against a wall.
For all the lovely poetry that threatens to drown out the sheer horror of the narrative, the violence ultimately wins out in the end. And a hearty salute to J. David Brimmer for that.