John Webster pushed the Jacobean theater into new and hysterical realms; like a seventeenth-century Jim Thompson, he rejected psychological exploration for baroque plotting, paroxysms of violence and pitch-black humor. His masterly “Duchess of Malfi” epitomizes these traits. We never learn why the brothers of the eponymous Duchess forbid her second marriage (though Michael Halberstam’s production at Writers’ Theatre drops a few hints). But on the way to a fifth act relentless in its carnage, we are offered the feverish machinations of the thoroughly corrupt Cardinal and the ironies of the treacherous courtier Bosola who may be the play’s closest thing to a moral center. We’re also treated to the gift of a severed hand supposedly taken from the body of the Duchess’s beloved Antonio. The wildness of Webster’s imagination demands a less sedate treatment than it gets from Writers’ Theatre. Despite ingenious costumes by Tatjana Radisic and a brisk pacing by Halberstam, the play never makes the visceral impact Jacobean tragedy demands. Matt Kozlowski is a likable enough Bosola, but neither he nor the severely understated Christopher McLinden as the mad prince Ferdinand convey the sense of menace pervading the court at Malfi, while the transformation of Elizabeth Rich’s chilly Duchess into a ghost is a distinct improvement. (John Beer)
This production is now closed.