April 8
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Reviving Royal Sin: Strong Performances Bring 'The Duchess of Malfi' to Life

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Reviving Royal Sin
Strong Performances Bring ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ to Life

by Christian Gentry
Chris Johnston and Whit Hertford bring death to life in the Babcock Theatre's "The Duchess of Malfi."

hese tears, I am very certain, never grew in my mother's milk. My estate is sunk below the degree of fear: Where were these penitent fountains, while she was living?” This line, given by Bosola, is an interesting summation of the tragic material surrounding John Webster’s “The Duchess of Malfi.” Death, deceit, secret love, guilt, madness and treason are the common themes that run through the Babcock Theatre’s production of the nearly three-hour, five-act tragedy.

It is one thing to see a grandiose Renaissance tragedy with massive set pieces on a massive stage. It is an entirely new creature when such productions are put into the claustrophobic closed quarters of the Babcock stage, converted into a thrust stage with seating on three sides of the stage for this performance. What was once a distant story from a distant land becomes a local story that threatens to encroach upon your personal space.

Directed by Sarah Shippobotham, The “Duchess of Malfi” is a resurrection of the tragedy. Regular attendees of the local theater rarely view such antiquated plays as the Jacobian “Duchess.” Rather, summer festivals are the usual bringers of older classics. Yet the edge usually found in the modern theater productions is not entirely lost in “Duchess.”

A stark stage with minimal lighting and quasi-Elizabethan costuming provides no distraction from the plot and acting. Trimming down the stage antics provides a certain exposure of the actors. The audience is forced to look at the circumstances and situations throughout the play in a near-first-person perspective.

Given the intimate space, minimalistic set and lighting design, it was all up to the actors to perform a show that drew in the audience. Unfortunately, it took the first three acts before the show grew compelling. It is difficult at times to wade through the language, especially when several of the actors’ enunciation was not that precise. For example, Delio (Benjamin Green) often slurred together lines, while Castruccio (Steve Unwin) maimed his lines with an interesting brogue that was caught somewhere between Scotland and Long Island. I still wonder why actors feel like they have to concoct a foreign accent in old plays.

Despite the previously mentioned shortcomings, the performances by principal characters carried the show. Cheryl Nichols, in the title role for half the performances, including tonight’s, for example, conjured a genuine character who progressed slowly through a wide range of emotions. Whether she was happy or sad, sane or mad, forgiving or bitter, Nichols did not phone it in. Ferdinand’s (Chris Johnston) gradual descent into writhing madness can be likened to the madness of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Johnston allowed the audience to slowly despise him more and more, while he drove himself to madness. The shades of right and wrong were often blurred in his character. Johnston played Ferdinand as an actual human being, not a demonized caricature. Whit Hertford’s portrayal of the ultimate anti-hero, Bosola, stood out among all of the principal performances. Hertford passionately portrayed the criminal whose blackened heart is finally struck with grief and sorrow, without guile. The anti-hero of Bosola is the moralist in the play—a moralist who trudged through all sorts of debauchery and death to teach the audience a lesson.

“The Duchess of Malfi” reinforces what T.S. Eliot said of Webster: “[He] was much possessed by death and saw the skull beneath the skin.” The Babcock’s production definitely brings this obsession into the limelight. You just have to sit through three hours to see its fruition.

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