Review: ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ at DePaul’s Theatre School

The Theatre School’s production of John Webster’s “The Duchess of Malfi” runs at the Fullerton Stage through April 26. (Photo courtesy of Michael Brosilow)
The Theatre School’s production of John Webster’s “The Duchess of Malfi” runs at the Fullerton Stage through April 26. (Photo courtesy of Michael Brosilow)

There comes both a unique challenge and immeasurable payoff in the task of relaying historical texts to modern audiences. This spring, the DePaul Theatre School’s “Duchess of Malfi”, directed by Lavina Jadhwani, masters it with energy and grace.

This production has translated John Webster’s original sixteenth-century setting into the politically and racially tumultuous Gilded Age. This contextual shift is a fascinating one, enabling this season’s audiences to explore the original text in a new historical setting. It is a testament to the creativity of The Theatre School and serves as tangible proof that many of the societal conflicts we experience transcend time.

The production chronicles the journey of the effervescent Duchess of Malfi (Ashlyn Lozano) whose husband has recently passed away. When she marries Antonio (Bernard Gilbert), her jealous brother, Ferdinand (Hugh Smith), is driven mad and chaos and pain ensue. As the Duchess attempts to love and live autonomously, the dangerous societal hierarchies that are at play become more and more salient. The story tells a complex tale of what it means to love, suffer and live amidst the power structures that bind those within society.

The actors that grace the stage during this spring’s production are wise and talented beyond their years. Their mastery of the intricate historical dialogue that Webster crafted centuries ago is immaculate and impressive; though the material has the potential to seem inaccessible, through body, dialogue, and gesture, these actors bring humor and life to it. The subject matter is immeasurably heavy but they have imbued the show with impressive levels that range from subtle to monumental.

While the entire cast glows, Lozano brings something truly special to this production in the title role of the Duchess. The protagonist that she portrays is endlessly complex and multi-faceted. Hers is a role that forces us to examine her in multiple spheres. The Duchess is a woman, a wife, a mother, a friend and a political figure amongst countless other roles. Perhaps the most interesting of them all, though, is the role of a woman during a time in which women were granted only a miniscule amount of autonomy. Lozano is intricate, brave, and grounded in her portrayal of a character whose intelligence glares in the face of those who try to oppress her.

The entirety of this season’s cast is spectacular. Bernard Gilbert’s poised and powerful portrayal of the Duchess’ illicit husband, Kayla Raelle Holder’s depiction of the Duchess’ dedicated maid, Cariola, and Jalen Gilbert’s multi-faceted representation of the conflicted Daniel de Bosola, culminate to form something truly spectacular. Their dynamic presences, along with those of the rest of the talented cast, breathe life into the already spectacular dialogue that they have been afforded.

While the show is rich in its thematic content, it is also a delight in its visual elements. The set design is condensed, but both intricate and innovative. Though it undergoes only small changes throughout the production, the addition of a table or the shifting of a light fixture, impressively, facilitates a new scene entirely.

In the show’s visual realm, the costuming is also a treat. They are immaculately crafted, delightfully colorful and beautifully intricate. Though the production’s central dynamism stems from its powerful content, the visual elements aide in the life and vibrancy that it teems with.

The Theatre School’s newest endeavor is a triumph in every sense of the word. It’s talented cast and creative team delved into an enormous risk when they chose to translate the show’s original time and place but it is a risk that yielded an enormous payoff. Its new place within history displays the dangerous saliency that power structures display within society. “The Duchess of Malfi” challenges its audiences to think about where they reside within history. It is rich with invigorating dialogue, historical exploration and timeless conflicts. It is an important production and has much to teach those who come to experience it.

“The Duchess of Malfi” will be at DePaul’s Fullerton Stage from April 17 to April 26.