At a risky time for theater companies, the members of the Actors' Shakespeare Project must have known they were taking an even bigger risk by staging, for the first time in their five seasons, a play by someone other than William Shakespeare. Happily, it's a gamble that pays off.
"The Duchess of Malfi" is not, of course, a completely uncalculated risk for the company. Because it was written by Shakespeare's contemporary John Webster, it draws from the same deep linguistic well - and it has what may be an added attraction for today's audiences, an even deeper well of blood and vengeful passion.
It has also, so far as anyone can remember, never received a professional production in Boston. In this academically and culturally prideful town, that's kind of incredible, and the novelty may be enough to attract a few more ticket buyers.
But the best reason to see this "Duchess of Malfi" is that David R. Gammons is directing it. Both in ASP's "Titus Andronicus" a couple of years ago and in "The Lieutenant of Inishmore" at New Repertory Theatre earlier this season, Gammons has shown that he knows exactly how to stage a gorefest, with or without buckets of blood. So it's not surprising that his "Duchess of Malfi" has plenty of violence, but not a drop more than it needs.
This is a Jacobean revenge tragedy, after all, so it is required by statute to litter the stage with dead bodies, an objective it achieves by increasingly grotesque and unlikely means. If there's another drama that kills off a character by having her kiss a poisoned book, I can't think of it just now.
Yet even that implausible demise makes perfect sense here: Gammons lets us see, without quite noticing at the time, the deliciously evil Cardinal (played, deliciously, by Joel Colodner) slip something out of his pocket and rub his Bible with it just before proffering it to his victim. It's a small touch, but it's typical of the intelligent care this production uses to guide us through the sometimes dense thickets of Webster's plotting, character development, and dark poetry.
For Webster is not, actually, Shakespeare. His plots conceal their creaks less adroitly, his characters contradict themselves less plausibly, and his lines, though full of striking images, rarely achieve the crystalline complexity of Shakespeare's best. (Well, whose does?) But Gammons has slashed the text with abandon, leaving all the juiciest bits and also highlighting the stark central tale: The wealthy, widowed Duchess of Malfi, against the wishes of her brothers (that nasty Cardinal and his equally nasty and much crazier brother, Ferdinand), secretly marries her steward, Antonio, touching off a series of schemes and slayings that will culminate in the aforementioned corpse-strewn stage.
Gammons sets all this on a long, narrow runway down the middle of the handsomely rugged basement space at Midway Studios, with heavy paneled doors looming at either end and the audience arrayed, like spectators at a grisly tennis match, on both long sides of the stage. We can't help watching the other spectators as well as the action, and their expressions of shock, wincing pain, or incredulity become part of the play itself.
As for the action onstage, it is bold and visually dramatic, with a heightened stylization that feels exactly right for the extreme passions boiling throughout. From the first image - the Duchess, swathed in black veils, gazing impassively at us from center stage - through the crisp deployments of servants, the feverish swirling of a madmen's dance, the curiously beautiful execution with thick scarlet ropes, and on to the final deadly tableau, each moment is at once an arresting image and an action charged with energy.
Anna-Alisa Belous's sumptuous but controlled costume design, using rich fabrics in a tightly limited palette, heightens the visual drama, as does Jeff Adelberg's severe lighting; Cameron Willard completes the tensing of our nerves with an eerie soundscape of whispers and lunatic screams. The design work gives the actors a whole richly imagined world to play off, and they respond with intensely realized work. Jennie Israel and Jason Bowen are charming as the doomed Duchess and her consort, Colodner and Michael Forden Walker despicable as the Cardinal and Ferdinand, and Bill Barclay as Bosola, the conflicted spy, displays complexity and a sometimes startling wit.
There are reasons "The Duchess of Malfi" isn't as well known as "Hamlet" or "King Lear." But there's no reason not to get to know it now.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.