The Duchess of Malfi

By John Webster
Directed by Ihsan Bracy
Westside Repertory Theatre
252 West 81st Street (874-7290)
Non-union production (closes December 13)
Review by Dudley Stone

John Webster (1580-1625), a contemporary of William Shakespeare, is famous for just two plays: The White Devil and the Duchess of Malfi. The latter is a relatively straightforward study of revenge within one family. Motivated by greed and family pride, the Cardinal and the Duke of Calabria do not want their widowed sister, the Duchess, to marry again. They persuade her to hire one Daniel Bosola, a murderer who acts as a spy for her two brothers. He reports to them that she is in love with Antonio, a member of her household, and has a child by him. The brothers vow to avenge the family honor, and they subsequently kill the Duchess, her maid, and two of her three children. Guilt-ridden, the Duke goes insane, and Borsola, the Cardinal, and Antonio are all killed.

This bloody tale of evil, perversion, and corruption in a disintegrating society is pretty strong gruel and, lacking much of the poetry of Shakespeare, as well as his comedy, requires very powerful ensemble acting and a production in the grand manner. Unfortunately, the West Side Rep's best efforts failed in both respects. All credit once again to the Rep. for another interesting choice of play; would that more Off-Offs would present the classics. But this time, the choice to produce this play, which needs so much sweep and space, in the very small 30-seat black-box, with a cast of 13 playing 19 roles, was a mistake. The result was a production that fell below the Rep's. standards. Although there are some good performances, many of the small roles and doubling resulted in acting little better than high-school level. It's hard to believe that the director could not have selected a stronger cast from the thousands of non-Equity actors in the City.

The play lasted two hours and thirty minutes plus a five-minute intermission. Why such a long play was selected and then not cut or trimmed considerably was surprising. Perhaps there should be an iron law of theatre that no play should run more than 90 minutes? One can regret that in the TV age attention spans are getting increasingly shorter, but nonetheless, have mercy on us! That having been said, now for the good part. Considering the difficulty of this play, the director (Ihsan Bracy) made surprisingly good use of the very limited space; and, in spite of the length of the play, moved it along at a steady clip. The costumes (Fred C. L. Mann, III) were splendid, the set quite adequate (Doug DeVita), and the sound and light (uncredited) fine.

As the Duchess, Anthea Fane, though lacking in tragic intensity, handled a demanding part quite well. Guy Bracca, as Bosola, was convincing as the hired murderer. However, Joel Bramble as the Cardinal did not seem evil enough by half, and Stephen Cordova's Duke Ferdinand was greatly weakened by his tendency to drop his voice at the end of lines and on his exits. Best work came from Annette Previti, as the Cardinal's -- and seemingly everyone's -- mistress, the lascivious Julia, and Sean Robinson's consistently good work as Antonio. Also featuring Tom Escovar, Joseph T. King, Tommy Diaz, Esthey Jun, Astou Conde, and Bekka Lindstrom.

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 1
Acting: 1
Set: 1
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 1998 Dudley Stone