“Lights!” the imprisoned Duchess cries. When servants comply, the enhanced brightness in the jail reveals —
Well, for those unfamiliar with John Webster’s 1614 revenge tragedy “The Duchess of Malfi,” it would be a shame to divulge the macabre sight that meets the noblewoman’s eyes. But it’s germane to say that director Paul Reisman and lighting designer Jason Aufdem-Brinke have incorporated some atmospheric lighting strategies throughout We Happy Few Productions’ “The Duchess of Malfi.” Flashlight beams needle through shadows. A fight scene illumined just by an amber-toned desk lamp is moody and chilling.
The artful touches are welcome in a production that otherwise tends toward the efficient, businesslike and brisk. Following in the wake of the company’s “Hamlet” and “Romeo and Juliet,” hyper-watchable 90-minute works seen at the Capital Fringe festival in 2012 and 2013, respectively, “Duchess” — part of the current Fringe — has also been pared to an hour and a half. Within this stretch of time, Reisman keeps Webster’s often ghoulish plot moving at the speed of an executioner’s axe.
It’s too bad that the characterizations in this scenically spare, modern-dress production aren’t always as rich as one might wish. The principal exception is Matthew Pauli’s sinister Cardinal, who exudes a still-waters-run-deep cruelty and competence, even when he is gazing at allies and underlings with stony eyes. In his ecclesiastical garb, with a scarlet sash, he’s an arresting figure.
The Cardinal is brother to the widowed Duchess (Lindsey D. Snyder) and to Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria (Brit Herring). When the Duchess remarries without her siblings’ permission — boldly choosing a social inferior, her honorable steward Antonio (Drew Kopas) — it’s just a matter of time before the brothers implement ghastly retribution, with the help of the servant Bosola (Rafael Untalan).
Dressed in slightly punk workman’s garb that contrasts with the dressy business attire many of the characters wear, Untalan’s Bosola radiates hangdog charisma. (Lynly Saunders is costume consultant.) Less compelling are Snyder and Kopas’s virtuous Duchess and Antonio. The pair give us a few endearing glimpses of their laughter-filled married life, and Snyder sounds a note or two of ditziness, early on, but, overall, the characters’ personalities seem too straightforward.
As the increasingly unhinged Ferdinand, Herring rants adequately. But the actor misses a chance to make Ferdinand’s relationship to the Duchess interestingly nuanced — an omission that detracts from the power of the play.
Several of the actors role-double in order to portray the lunatics that Ferdinand dispatches to scare his sister as the tale approaches its climax. None of the verbal ravings that Webster wrote for the scene appear here, nor are they necessary: These specters simply make deranged gestures and noises — a haunting example of the streamlined aesthetic the production strives for overall.
Wren is a freelance writer.
By John Webster. With Gwen Grastorf. Fight choreography, Casey Kaleba. 2 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Monday and Wednesday at Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, 916 G St. NW. 866-811-4111. www.capitalfringe.org. $17 plus the one-time purchase of a Fringe button. 90 minutes.