MALFI DOESN't EXIST in this production of The Duchess of Malfi. The turgid program note warns that Webster's seventeenth-century tragedy is a "waking dream." An empty lavender platform represents the ducal palace of Malfi; in Laura Shiels and Cynthia Raymond's stylized production, this psychological drama could take place anywhere or anytime within one's imagination. Shiels and Raymond interpolate dance and mime into the story to indicate the tensions beneath the Renaissance rhetoric. A veil hangs at the back of the stage, behind which a "Duchess of Imagination" flirts while the real Duchess in front disclaims interest in men. This division of the play, though clever, imposes severe restrictions on the actors. Shiels and Raymond allow neither the dancing behind the veil nor the acting in front of it to be subtle. The dancing is blatantly sexual and the acting deliberately one-dimensional.
Within this rigid constraint, the actors deliver mannered performances that are in several cases impeccable. David Cort, as the evil brother who engineers the Duchess' downfall, is unremittingly sinister. A Cardinal with a Borgia-like disregard for the moral teachings of the Church, he covets the wealth of his sister, a young widow, and cold-bloodedly arranges her excommunication and then her death. The Cardinal seduces and discards young women, betrays his brother, an ally in the conspiracy against the duchess, and is finally himself assassinated. The audience applauds when the Cardinal dies: Cort's portrayal allows for no sympathy. Cort relishes his role as a relentless villain, stalking across the stage, raising a disdainful eyebrow at the masquerade his sister arranges to entertain him, and reciting the sonorous phrases of the Latin excommunication ritual with majestic self-righteousness. We believe it when someone says "the Devil speaks in him."
Evil, however, can be both magnificent and foul. The groveling degradation of the hired assassin Bosola counterbalances the Cardinal's satanic grandeur. Brian Sands, as the slimy Bosola, is another thoroughly loathsome villain. Half-naked, he revels in his own corruption and derides the courtiers who hide their inward decay with fine clothes and a gracious manner. He listens at keyholes, squirming on the floor as he does, and obtains the evidence of her clandestine marriage that dooms the hapless Duchess. Sands mimes better than anyone else in the cast. Referred to more than once as a serpent, he slithers across the stage. Sands' first entrance is a masterpiece of--literally--insinuation.
The cruelest, if most honest, of the three villains if Ferdinand, the Duchess' other brother. Shiels and Raymond have gambled heavily here, casting a woman, Kate Levin, as the lustful Ferdinand, but their bet pays off. Ferdinand is passionately in love with his own sister: Levin's casting makes incest all the more unsettling. Insanely jealous of his sister's husband, Ferdinand destroys his sister rather than see her happy with a man he thinks unworthy of her. Unlike Cort and Sands, Levin moves awkwardly--on purpose. Ferdinand struggles against an over-whelming passion, giving in to impulse and then regretting it. Clad in black, Levin contorts her face and body, speaking with horrid intensity. Her words spew forth in an uncontrollable stream, superbly conveying Ferdinand's ferocious impetuosity.
The only performer who seems ill at east with the restrictions of this production is Kim Bendheim in the title role. Bendheim tries for something more than a one-dimensional characterization. Her Duchess is a skittish teenager, determined to do just as she pleases. She falls in love with her steward, contracting a secret marriage with him, and that mesalliance causes her downfall. Yet Bendheim does not make the Duchess a giddy and thoughtless girl. Though young, the Duchess is nevertheless a great aristocrat, fully aware of the responsibilities of her social position and of the danger in which her marriage will place her. At one moment, Bendheim skips for joy; at another, she dismisses her servants with a single high-handed gesture. The Duchess is a strong character, able bravely to state "I am Duchess of Malfi still" when all the trappings of rank have been taken from her.
Attempting to be both proud and passionate, Bendheim has a difficult task. In her emphasis on the Duchess' youthful audacity, she stumbles over long sentences and leaves us unsure this reckless girl could deceive her cunning brother for even a little while. In the second half of the play, when the Duchess' pride sustains her through her misfortunes, Bendheim occasionally slips into facile arrogance, leaving the Duchess' anguish only hinted at. But these are momentary lapses in what remains a rewarding performance. Bendheim's characterization, while not wholly realized, is subtler and more human than the effective but confined performances of the other actors.
ALL THE dance and mime does not fully compensate for the narrowness of Shiels and Raymond's interpretation. Regarded merely as a nightmare, The Duchess of Malfi loses coherence and power. Though Shiels and Raymond have taken great liberties with the play--the plot is so tightly constructed that it survives. Horror after horror piles up and our interest never flags. Nevertheless, we don't believe in what happens. Bendheim's is the only performance approaching credibility. By removing The Duchess of Malfi from a gossip-ridden palace and situating it in the dark recesses of the mind, Shiels and Raymond have made the tragedy more ghastly, the villains more sinister, but both less convincing. The directors have reduced Webster's tragedy to melodrama--enjoyable, fast-paced but cardboard. A tragedy should make us suffer vicariously, if only for an instant. We don't suffer for an instant at Quincy House's Duchess of Malfi: it's difficult to sympathize with someone else's nightmare.