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« EXPO CHICAGO Announces 2012 Exhibitors Ring Around the Rosie »

Theater Wed Apr 25 2012

Strawdog's The Duchess of Malfi: Too Much Stuff, Too Little Space

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(L to R) Andrew Goetten, Kyle A. Gibson, Lindsey Dorcus, (standing in center of circle) Justine C. Turner , Paul Fagen, Nigel Brown. Photo by Chris Ocken.

John Webster crafted the uber-tragedy The Duchess of Malfi in 1612, based on the true life events of Giovanna d'Aragona, widow of noble-borne Alfonso Piccolomini, who secretly married the lesser-borne Antonio Bologna (of the same name in the play). After a brief and secret courtship, Bologna (Stephen Dunn) and the Duchess (Justine C. Turner) seal their earthly bond, ignoring political and sexual jockeying from brothers Ferdinand (John Taflan) and The Cardinal (Christopher Walsh), who vow to destroy anyone, including The Duchess, that gets in the way of the fate they have planned for their sister's hand and wealth.

Driven to madness by incestuous pining and estate greed, the brothers suspect their sister is hiding a "dark" secret. The Cardinal sends Bosola, a former servant to The Cardinal, spared the gallows on a murder conviction for the specific task of keeping watch over the Duchess and reporting back to The Cardinal. Not particularly versed at the task at-hand, perhaps out of incompetence or his own feelings for The Duchess, three children are born from the union of The Duchess and Bologna. Eventually Bosola obtains a key to The Duchess's private chamber, and catches her in secret repose with Bologna. The Duchess send Bologna away to safety, but she and her children, along with faithful handmaiden Cariola (Lindsey Dorcus) are arrested, and fate is sealed. There is remorse, regret and retribution, and no one is spared, either by purpose or accident, including The Cardinal's mistress, Julia (McKenzie Chinn), whose flaw is to trust "the holiest" of men.

There are too many flaws with Strawdog's production of The Duchess of Malfi, and in the interest of time (this production is two and one-half hours long, excluding intermission!) I'll bullet-point:

  • Too much production, not enough stage: The Duchess of Malfi would be better served in operatic form, on a stage the Lyric house-size stage.
  • Too many characters, stumbling about the "stage" - orchestral maneuvers in the dark.
  • Too much makeup - most of the ensemble looked as if they were going trick-or-treating as the cast from "Rocky Horror", The Cardinal was glossed up to bear a startling resemblance to the snobbish interior designer Otto from "Beetlejuice". A little shoe-black goes a long way and should be used sparingly.
  • There was no discernible and visible difference in the classes. If it's a budget issue, the Wardrobe department should have used color as the class demarcation, as was really done in the medieval times. And, speaking of costumes.
  • Big-ass show in a small-ass space allowed audience members in the first row to literally see the safety pins holding up a few cast members' costumes.
  • Advice for McKenzie Chinn (Julia): "playing dead" means looking the part. Your, er, heaving bosom, says that not only aren't you dead, you may actually be horny - which is fairly useless in a production with so little sex appeal and it's distracting....
  • ...And speaking of distracting, sounds coming from backstage gave the impression that cast members were tripping over themselves and into the props.
  • The Chorus sounded less than ominous and more orgasmic, like raw sex in an insane asylum. It was like my upstairs neighbors at 2AM.

A better financial and emotional investment for the price of admission to The Duchess of Malfi would be to check out Showtime's "The Borgias", Netflix-stream "The Tudors". But if you're genuinely interested in long and winding, not relevant to much going on in the real world spectacles, and you like being in cozy spaces, then you'll find appeal in The Duchess -- but be warned, the seats are tight and metallic, so slather on plenty of Prep H before you imbibe.

The Duchess of Malfi runs through May 26 at the Strawdog Theatre, 3829 North Broadway Street. Tickets may be ordered online at or by calling OvationTix toll-free: 866-811-4111.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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