- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 2, 2002

The Christmas holidays at the Malfi house must have been something. In ordinary life, the family is monstrous. One

brother is a cardinal (Edward Gero) and craven in every way, from his avaricious dealings to the decadent redness of his flowing velvet robes, thigh-high crimson boots and his wrists and neck dripping with white lace. The play's costumer, Robert Perdziola, heightens the Cardinal's wickedness by giving him white gloves decorated with red jeweled crosses.

The Cardinal is a vampire, but at least he seems grown-up. His brother, Duke Ferdinand (Donald Carrier), seems spoiled, petulant and maybe more than a little off his rocking horse.

In the middle is the Duchess of Malfi (Kelly McGillis), Ferdinand's twin sister. They favor each other in looks, but the recently widowed Duchess is regal, sensual and levelheaded. Her brothers want to rule over both her person and her lands. They don't want her to marry again.

For the Cardinal, this is a matter of pure greed. For Ferdinand, it is another matter altogether. Some productions of John Webster's "The Duchess of Malfi" dance around the incest and sexuality issue, but director Michael Kahn's production addresses it head-on. This risky, thrilling production doesn't flit around anything to drive home the idea of a good woman forced to live with absolute evil.

The Duchess marries her kind, devoted steward Antonio (Robert Tyree) in secret, and the happy couple have three children. In the midst of her bliss comes Bosola (Andrew Long), who starts out as a lackey and a mercenary for the two brothers.

Bosola, the splendid opportunist, is only too happy to expose the Duchess. The brothers stave off revenge, thinking their sister is merely a strumpet and the children are illegitimate. When the secret marriage is revealed, Ferdinand blows more gaskets than you thought possible. He demands that the Duchess commit suicide, then he wants Antonio's head. He is safely in exile, however.

The Cardinal is a bit more subdued. He demands the Duchess be imprisoned while Bosola murders everything in sight. During the Duchess' imprisonment, Ferdinand inflicts a series of outrageous cruelties upon his sister. They include visits from howling-mad asylum inmates and a particularly gruesome ruse using wax effigies. She endures all with nobility and grace.

This being Jacobean tragedy, the body count rises and rises, with Bosola at the helm. Yet, a gorgeous grace note is added by Mr. Kahn, who has the elegant, eloquent ghost of the Duchess haunt the last half of the play and subtly prick Bosola's conscience.

This sets up a marvelous bond between the Duchess and Bosola, the play's most interesting and complex characters. The roles of Ferdinand and the Cardinal are grandly colorful they must be a gas to perform but the two remain horrible to the end.

The Duchess is called upon to make transformations. For a brief moment, she goes from bullied sister to a powerful, free woman when she chooses her husband, Antonio, and a happy marriage. When her brothers wreak their awful revenge, she is forced from her posh existence into exile and torture. The Duchess finds a way to rise above her hell on Earth, and, in an ironic twist, she comes back from the dead to make life hell for Bosolo.

Miss McGillis makes a startlingly fine Duchess. She is sensual, noble and aristocratic but also gives the impression she has lived and suffered. She is as affecting as a spirit as the Duchess was in life. The beauty of Miss McGillis' performance lies in its absolute vitality and her insistence on being felt and heard.

Bosolo is the other character who changes. He goes from the dutiful servant who blindly does anything for a buck into a man transformed alas, too late by the dignity of the Duchess. Mr. Long proves to be a miracle in the role, a melancholy pessimist who is "just doing his job" and provides the play with a wonderfully pragmatic humor. He will break your heart as the cynical murderer who is not undone by the sword, but by the grace of a woman.

Mr. Gero is the model of canonical composure as the Cardinal, but you can just see him seething with sin underneath. Mr. Carrier savagely conveys the dysfunctional Ferdinand consumed by jealousy.

Mr. Kahn produces a play of tingling beauty. Walt Spangler's abstract set is dark and luxurious; the costumes are a haute couture riot of expensive (and ample) yards of fabric, fur trim and embroidery; and lighting by Amy Appleyard is so lush we peasants never could afford it.

It is a hotbed of a play, and Mr. Kahn goes for the savagery, the ripping yarn, the macabre moment that is as riveting as it is nasty. The furious energy of the piece is its saving grace, since you are left with the feeling that you are watching the misdeeds of an artistocratic, fast crowd one to which you usually would not be privy.

How delicious.


WHAT: "The Duchess of Malfi"

WHERE: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays (except March 10), 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and noon March 6, through March 10

TICKETS: $14.50 to $63


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