IU offers stunning production of dark tragedy ‘Duchess’

Matthew Waterman
Herald Times Bloomington
February 6, 2017

Had the lot of Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists known the extent to which William Shakespeare would one day overshadow them, they may have been so demoralized as to give up all hopes of lasting legacies.

Still, once in a while, we are reminded that the Bard was not the only bard around during the late 16th and early 17th centuries in England. Thomas Kyd, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, John Fletcher and John Webster all get some attention, and even a production now and then.

It’s one of Webster’s pieces, indeed his most beloved masterpiece, that gets a stunning treatment from the Indiana University department of theatre, drama and contemporary dance this week. “The Duchess of Malfi” is a dark, devastating tragedy, deserving every bit as much renown as “King Lear” or “Othello.”

The premise is nothing unheard of; a woman wants to marry a man, but other men don’t want her to marry him, so they try to put a stop to it. But the show itself is far from quotidian.

The woman at issue is the Duchess of Malfi (that’s in Italy), and the object of her love is Antonio, a mere steward. The Duchess is a young widow, and her possessive brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, are determined to keep her single. The men’s most obvious motive is to maximize their shares of the family fortune.

Ignoring both the discrepancy in rank and the Duchess’ brothers’ protestations, the Duchess and Antonio enter into a clandestine marriage. Before long, they’ve eloped and begun bearing children.

Ferdinand, harboring a strange and sinister obsession with his sister, hires Bosola to spy on her. Ferdinand and his more mentally stable sibling, the Cardinal, remain two steps behind the Duchess and Antonio for several years of the show.

This may sound like a run-of-the-mill romance, but things take a turn for the terrible in the second act. The ensuing carnage would seem gratuitous in a modern action movie, but Webster pulls it off.

“The Duchess of Malfi” is rendered exquisitely by director Katie Horwitz, this production being her thesis project for an master’s of fine arts in directing. The show has a cohesive and compelling directorial vision behind it.

Matching that vision is a stellar design team of Alana Yurczyk (set), Emmie Phelps (costumes), Tony Stoeri (lighting) and Andrew Hopson (sound). The production design has an unnerving, unforgiving aesthetic that fits well the gravity of Webster’s text.

Stoeri’s lighting choices in particular stand out for their boldness, without going over the top. One chilling scene is illuminated by only one light, relatively close to the ground, revealing only silhouettes to the audience.

The atmosphere is complete with spooky music by Emily Yoo and Rob Funkhouser.

But this is no Halloween spectacle; the play is highly sophisticated, and the actors approach it in an equally sophisticated manner.

We see plainly the internal moral battles waged in the soul of Jason Craig West as Bosola, a hit man cursed with a conscience. Chris J. Handley makes for a likeable Antonio. Ryan Claus, portraying Ferdinand, is as cunning in the first act as he is unhinged and brutish in the second.

There is no question in my mind, though, as to who delivers the most memorable performance. Emily Sullivan captivates in the title role. Few will fail to empathize with the Duchess’ agony.

Here are my warnings: The language is dated and all in verse. The plot is complex. It can be hard to follow. It’s no more confusing than Shakespeare, but no less. Furthermore, it’s long (about two hours and 40 minutes including intermission). Finally, it’s a tad gruesome.

So maybe it’s not for everyone, but anyone who it is for is bound to be impressed. Webster’s macabre “Duchess of Malfi” is one of IU Theatre’s most rewarding offerings in recent memory.

If you go

WHO: Indiana University department of theatre, drama and contemporary dance.

WHAT: “The Duchess of Malfi” by John Webster.

WHERE: Wells-Metz Theatre in the Norvelle Center, 275 N. Jordan Ave., Bloomington.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today-Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday.

TICKETS: $15-$25. Available by phone 812-855-1103, in person at the IU Auditorium box office or online at theatre.indiana.edu.