UMBC company presents a muted 'Duchess of Malfi'

April 29, 1995|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

John Webster's 17th-century tragedy, "The Duchess of Malfi," is based on a gruesome real-life 16th-century Italian horror story of greed, revenge and multiple murders. A rarely performed work, it should be a shocking and unsettling evening of theater.

But several things put a damper on the Maryland Stage Company's production, directed by Xerxes Mehta, at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. The first is current events. Heinous as the crimes recounted in Webster's script may be, they can't help but be overshadowed by recent headlines, which hang over this long-ago and far-away drama as a far more graphic and immediate reminder of man's inhumanity.

And yet, it should still be possible to connect with -- or, in most cases, be revolted by -- the characters in this Jacobean classic. These connections, however, are often severed by the Maryland Stage Company's uneven performances.

Wendy Salkind delivers a touching, empathetic portrayal of the severely wronged title character, and Roger Buchanan and William McLaughlin are suitably sinister as her scheming, homicidal brothers, who will stop at nothing to keep her from re-marrying and depriving them of her estate. In addition, Sam McCready brings subtle shadings to the play's trickiest role -- that of the mercenary Bosola, who starts out as the brothers' willing spy and hit man and ends up repentant.

But as Antonio, the steward whom the duchess secretly marries, Michael A. Stebbins is too immature in appearance and in his over-eager acting style. Indeed, his performance and youth make the duchess' attraction to him seem more like lust than love, which alters our assessment of her and throws off the balance of the action. This balance is further jostled by the stilted performances of much of the supporting cast.

As has become nearly a given with the Maryland Stage Company, the physical production is stunning -- contrasting William Brown's stark set design with Elena Zlotescu's imaginative, colorful costumes. In this case, however, the artificial theatricality further blunts the emotional impact, making tragedy often compared to "Hamlet" seem closer to "Titus Andronicus."

For instance, the initial image is of something resembling an pTC Easter-egg tree on an otherwise bare stage; in the end, a leafless, broken tree limb lies on its side at the back of the stage, bathed in red light. Blood has replaced new life. It's a logical progression of images, but like much of this production, it feels too precious for a play that should disturb the gut as much as the brain.

'THE DUCHESS OF MALFI'

Where: Maryland Stage Company at University of Maryland Baltimore County Theatre, 5401 Wilkens Ave.

When: 8 p.m. tonight and May 4-6

Tickets: $10

Call: (410) 455-2476

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