John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi is one of the gorier plays in English literature. But though it's a so-called "tragedy of blood," there's no blood visible in director Michael Kahn's intense production at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre.
It's not that the requisite number of lives (eight) aren't lost. It's just that we don't see any of the red stuff being spilled. This turns out to be especially appropriate for a Jacobean revenge tragedy whose villains are extremely cold-hearted and bloodless.
Indeed, Kahn's entire approach is refreshingly subtle. Instead of milking the blood and guts aspect, Kahn introduces the ghost of the title character to emphasize the sudden emergence of a conscience in the play's most intriguing character, Bosola, a spy and paid assassin. The result turns a play overflowing with revenge and murder into a haunting examination of a change of heart - albeit one that comes too late.
The plot is set in motion when the greedy, conniving brothers of the widowed Duchess of Malfi forbid her to remarry. To keep an eye on her, they arrange for their spy, Bosola, to serve on her staff. But the Duchess, played with sophistication and strength by Kelly McGillis, is not about to be ruled by her selfish brothers. She secretly marries her household steward, Antonio (Robert Tyree), and bears him three children.
As depicted by McGillis and the gentle, dignified Tyree, theirs is a model marriage grounded in love. In short, they are the diametric opposites of the Duchess' covetous, suspicious brothers: the lecherous Machiavellian Cardinal, portrayed with a sinister chill by Edward Gero, and the Duchess' twin, Ferdinand, portrayed by Donald Carrier as a spoiled rich boy who harbors more than a healthy love for sis.
It's easy to go overboard with material like this - material that includes a severed hand and a poisoned Bible. But Kahn achieves far more by suggestion than blatancy. Ferdinand's lust for the duchess, for example, is conveyed primarily by having Carrier hold her shawl in his arms, then discreetly inhale its aroma. In a play in which the stage ends up littered with bodies, Kahn allows smaller, telling moments to speak volumes.
If McGillis' Duchess is the play's tender heart, then Andrew Long's bitter, jaded Bosola is so bloodless, he appears to have no heart at all. And that's exactly why the interpolated ghost is so effective. When Bosola feels the first prick of conscience and says, "Still methinks the Duchess/Haunts me," he is, in fact, visited by her white-garbed spirit, who watches over much of the remaining action.
Walt Spangler's dark set design, murkily lighted by Amy Appleyard, reinforces the similarity between palace and dungeon in this drama. And Robert Perdziola's lush, fur-trimmed brocade costumes never let us forget that unbridled excess and greed is at the core of Webster's tragedy. (The Cardinal's thigh-high red reptile boots are a lovely touch.)
The Duchess of Malfi is the Shakespeare Theatre's first foray into the work of Webster, a young contemporary of Shakespeare's whom mainstream audiences may know best from the 1999 Academy Award-winning movie Shakespeare in Love, in which he is first seen as a malevolent boy toying with mice.
Kahn's carefully wrought production of Webster's most famous play lets us see how this lad's sadistic sensibility evolved. And though the result is closer to Titus Andronicus than Hamlet, Kahn deserves high marks for making it more edifying than blood-curdling.
The Duchess of Malfi
Where: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. N.W., Washington
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m., 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through March 10.