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Photograph: Chris OckenThe Duchess of Malfi at Strawdog Theatre Company

The Duchess of Malfi at Strawdog Theatre Company | Theater review

Despite some strong performances, a new adaptation doesn’t strengthen John Webster’s oddly paced 17th-century tragedy.


Justine C. Turner gives a lovely, moving performance at the center of Strawdog’s latest—but no, center’s not quite right. Turner, an eminently watchable Strawdog ensemble member, is fine indeed in the title role of John Webster’s Jacobean tragedy. Several of the other principals, including Stephen Dunn as the Duchess’s steward and secret husband, John Taflan and Christopher M. Walsh as her scheming brothers, and Joshua Davis as malcontent pawn Bosola, are interesting, even compelling. But Webster’s problematic play seems to lack a center of gravity, and this harried new adaptation by Christine Scarfuto and director Brandon Bruce further muddies the waters.

The Duchess, a young widow, is discouraged from remarrying by her brothers Duke Ferdinand (Taflan) and the Cardinal (Walsh) for propriety’s sake, but also for their own selfish purposes. Against their wishes, the Duchess marries her steward Antonio (Dunn), a valiant but lowborn man with whom she bears three children in secret. Bosola, the brothers’ mole, discovers this, and as Jacobean tragedies tend to go, everyone ends up dead.

Bruce invents a six-actor chorus in flowy robes and punked-out hair that, when not standing in for 20-plus minor characters, lurks at the action’s edges performing stylized movement exercises, twisty or pulsating, along with atmospheric sound effects. They serve to create more confusion than clarity, as do Jordan Kardasz’s moody lighting and Bruce’s rushed pacing. Still, Turner turns out a nuanced performance.

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