The Duchess of Malfi
Presented by the King's County Shakespeare Company at Founders Hall, St. Francis College, Brooklyn, New York. August 14-31, 2003. Directed by Jemma Alix Levy. Technical Director Vincent Hokia. Costumes by Lea Umberger. Lighting by Izzy Einsidler. Music by Aaron Friedman. With Renée Bucciarelli (Duchess), Jon Fordham (Cardinal), Andrew Oswald (Ferdinand), Matt D'Amico (Bosola), Patrick Hallahan (Antonio), Mauricio Tafur Salgado (Delio), Shauna Miles (Julia), Vicki Hirsch (Cariola), Frank Smith (Malateste), Dayle Vander Sande (Roderigo), and others.
Michael Basile, New Jersey City University
...Frankly, we sometimes required someone to grab our attention, command the stage, and yes even occasionally slow down. In the starring role, Renée Bucciarelli carefully led us into the soul of a woman composed of unequal parts despair and joy. Aptly, we spied in her performance "the shape of lovliness / More perfect in her tears than in her smiles." The mature confidence of a seasoned player allowed her to delineate just what proportion she was mixing at any particular moment. It was largely vulnerability and an impending sense of dread we were most aware of early. In the opening scenes, she seemed cowed by the remonstrances of her overbearing brothers. The actress is diminutive in stature, but she appeared to shrink before our very eyes. Her presence grew, however, as her circumstances became more precarious, especially after her tragic marriage to Antonio. Bucciarelli proved a canny improviser as she deftly managed to concoct a plan to dismiss Antonio, in order to keep him out of harm's way. Yet in a private moment just before, in what she and he suspect may be their last together, her love seemed almost girlish in its freshness and immediacy. Hallahan is ten to fifteen years her junior, but she overwhelmed him with her ardor.
Yet the necessary question of the play was never sacrificed to mere histrionics: in this thoroughly corrupt world, is there even a nutshell where virtue may abide? As the embodiment of that virtue—and the prime object of the corruption—the Duchess' story is our story. And the answer to the question is "No." Resisting a self-aggrandizing approach to the heroism, Bucciarelli carefully shaped her emphases to clarify that her predicament was both individual and universal: in her salmon and dogfish speech to Bosola, she yearns for a meritocratic society where Antonio and other good men like him "oft are valued high, when th'are most wretch'd." Later, she welcomes her imminent murder with a casual toss of the head: "Puff / Let me blow these vipers from me." Still it seems strange to praise an actor for commanding a stage (albeit stylishly) because too many do so when they mustn't. Indulgence is the actor's often seen vice—especially during a final performance when the temptation to luxuriate in the last, sweet taste of a role is trebly hard to resist. Temptation for Bucciarelli could have been overwhelming, for this afternoon marked a series of finales—the last Malfi, the last company performance until next season, the swan song of this highly professional leading lady. (A founding member of King's County Shakespeare, she is moving to California.) She departs Brooklyn in style, anchoring a traditional reading of this Jacobean masterpiece that Londoners of the seventeenth-century would have recognized. Court disease triumphs over all in time, singular virtue notwithstanding...