While “off Broadway” is often the destination for the worst sort of stage-direction anarcho-anachronism, with Othello in spaceships and all-lesbian versions of Macbeth, it may surprise the non-New Yorker to learn that it is often the place to discover classic drama played absolutely straight (in all senses) and flawlessly acted.
Such was the case recently with a production of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, presented by the Kings County Shakespeare Company at Brooklyn’s St. Francis College. The play, first staged in 1614 at the Blackfriars and Globe theaters, has since become the most-performed non-Shakespearean tragedy in the English language. Based on a true story about an Italian duchess who suffered a cruel fate at the hands of her two brothers, Ferdinand and “the Cardinal,” for secretly marrying beneath her station, the drama contains at its core a triangular relationship between the Duchess, her steward-husband Antonio, and Ferdinand, who is captive to an incestuous passion for her.
The Duchess is a “right noble” woman, whose “discourse,” Antonio claims, “is so full of rapture / You only will begin then to be sorry / When she doth end her speech,” and her “days are practiced in such noble virtue / That sure her nights, nay more, her very sleeps, / Are more in heaven than other ladies’ shrifts.”