BWW Review: THE DUCHESS OF MALFI - Hidden Room Recreates Renaissance Thriller
The Hidden Room has a reputation for presenting meticulously researched historic theatre in the acting style in which they were originally produced. Their current show, THE DUCHESS OF MALFI does not disappoint. The cast and crew outdo themselves in presenting outstanding classic theatre every time. After it's run in Austin, this production hits the road to perform in London, Stratford and Cornwall.
Written by John Webster around 1612, THE DUCHESS OF MALFI made its debut at Blackfriars in the winter of 1613 - 1614, clues within the work itself indicate that it was written for an indoor theatre. A revival of the play was performed at The Globe Theatre during the summer of 1614. While not as famous as his older contemporary, Webster's plays were nonetheless a wonderful example of early Jacobean theatre and gave him a reputation for the violence he presented on stage. While not as famous as his older contemporary, Webster's plays were nonetheless a wonderful example of early Jacobean theatre and gave him a reputation for violence presented on stage. There's even an inside joke about his love for stage mayhem in the movie SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE if you can catch it. Loosely based on events in Italy in the 16th century, THE DUCHESS OF MALFI follows the tragic love story of the duchess (Liz Beckham), a widow, who has been strictly ordered by her brothers to remain unmarried so they can control her wealth. But she falls in love with Antonio (Brock England), despite the fact that he is far beneath her in social status; the couple marry and produce three children in secret. The duchess's brothers, Ferdinand (Ryan Crowder) the Duke Of Calabria and the Cardinal (Robert Matney) engage a spy, Bosola (Judd Ferris), to keep tabs on their sister. Can you say family trust issues? The only person to know the deadly secret is the duchess's waiting woman, Cariola (Jill Swanson). But Bolsola finds the duchess in childbirth and discovers she has been lying to her brothers. After some seriously sick torture, heinous murder ensues and seals the fate of all the evil doers. Subplots twist through the play but in the end the bad guys get their due. While many of the really horrible homicides in Shakespeare occur offstage, Webster puts them front and center. I would warn potential audience members that this play is not for everyone.
Director Beth Burns leads a brilliant team and sets the historic play in a beautiful setting. The cast is stellar, with too many Great Performances to mention here. But I must applaud a few standouts who are the cream of the crop. Ryan Crowder and Robert Matney are wonderfully malevolent as the brothers. Crowder plays the unhinged Duke Ferdinand to perfection and Matney revels in the role of the lustful Cardinal. Liz Beckham and Brock England as the illicit lovers are beautiful in their relationship, their passion for each other is perfectly played. In a tour de force performance Judd Ferris, gives us a reluctant villain for the ages. His growing regret and self recrimination may be the most heartbreaking part of the performance. Costumes designed by Jenny McNee and Liz Schneider are lush and beautiful in their period detail. Huge kudos to the stitching team of Star Maddox, Katy Thompson, Kelli Bland, Kristin Hammock, Valerie Ward, Kaylie Navarre, Pam Fletcher-Friday and Samantha Smith. I know the exacting work it takes to see such an undertaking from concept to stage and you all deserve star billing. Perhaps the most beautiful and subtle aspect of DUCHESS OF MALFI is the music, arranged and conducted by Howard Burkett. His orchestration masterfully bridges the gap between Renaissance and Restoration songs matching the emotion on stage more like a film soundtrack than a play. Put together this production brings to brilliant life an aspect of theatrical art long gone.
To appreciate historical theatre one must experience it and THE DUCHESS OF MALFI is the perfect entree into an old world made new.
THE DUCHESS OF MALFI
BY John Webster
Directed by Beth Burns
Hidden Room Theatre, 311 W 7th St, Austin
September 20 - October 20
Tickets: $37 - $20, hiddenroomtheatre.org