The Hidden Room Theatre's The Duchess of Malfi

In staging John Webster's revenge tragedy, the company strikes a delightful balance between historical authenticity and genuine emotion

Liz Beckham (kneeling) and Brock England in The Duchess of Malfi
Liz Beckham (kneeling) and Brock England in The Duchess of Malfi (Photo by Christopher Shea)

I was once chastised by an editor for too frequently using the word "authentic" in my pieces (in my defense, I was writing for Authentic Texas Magazine). I guess I'm just drawn to the fluidity of a word that can describe the quality of a five-star chef's cuisine as well as, say, the sincerity of a cheating spouse's apology. Unsurprisingly, I found myself needing this sort of versatility when discussing the Hidden Room Theatre's production of The Duchess of Malfi.

Presented in the arena-style, ballroom setting of the York Rite Masonic Hall, Hidden Room stages John Webster's 1614 drama of love and revenge with historical genuineness. In addition to live music, replicated candlelight, and intricate period costumes, the cast performs Renaissance era gesture acting – a re-created style of theatrical movement developed by Shakespeare's Globe Head of Higher Education & Research Dr. Farah Karim-Cooper.

While I'd expect this sort of fully realized theatergoing experience from Austin's 2019 Cultural Ambassadors for Theatre, what impresses about Duchess of Malfi is that these intensively researched techniques together create a familiar human experience – one that proudly displays both historical and emotional authenticity (e.g., Karim-Cooper's gesture acting; it's these quick, primal moments of clean choreography that build on the dramatic base that the show's actors aptly lay down.)

Setting a strong foundation is actor Liz Beckham, who plays the demanding role of the Duchess with a graceful urgency. As a performer, she seems to vividly feel each line. When she falls into a forbidden love with Antonio, Beckham displays an eagerness that captures the universal excitement of a new affair. Simultaneously, she encapsulates the heroine's headstrong nature so admirably that you may find yourself cursing Webster for killing off the character so early in the narrative.

But as deeply as Hidden Room's staging is rooted in novel presentation, director Beth Burns knows when to pull these elements back. Case in point, the Duchess' torture scene, which finds terror in nothing but a darkened stage and impactful performances (namely, the gleeful sadism of Ryan Crowder's villainous Ferdinand). This brutality culminates in perhaps the most difficult-to-watch stage murder I've seen, with the broken Duchess strangled in a visceral manner, courtesy of Beckham's ability to portray strength and pain at once.

What ultimately bridges the production's lighthearted and macabre moments is a righteous, satisfying revenge, exacted here by the scheming malcontent spy, Bosola. Over the course of two hours, actor Judd Farris skillfully presents the inner journey that takes this character from unscrupulous henchman to bleeding-heart (if tragically mistaken) avenger. With a well-rounded energy, Farris provides a consistent north star for the show's many unique characters to move toward and against.

As Act II draws toward its end, bodies of men both good and bad litter the stage. Before we've had a moment to contemplate this climax of violence, the actors return to deliver a jaunty, choreographed dance set to live string music. This distinctive curtain call is the cherry on top of this company's quest to create a historically accurate theatrical experience. To me, this ending encapsulates what makes The Duchess of Malfi worth engaging: Here, Hidden Room has struck a delightful balance between realistic emotion and theatrical tradition – a balance that milks the word "authentic" for all it's worth.

The Duchess of Malfi

York Rite Masonic Hall, 311 W. Seventh
Through Oct. 20
Running time: 2 hr., 15 min.

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The Hidden Room Theatre, Beth Burns, Liz Beckham, Judd Farris, Ryan Crowder, Farah Karim-Cooper, Shakespeare's Globe, Brock England, John Webster

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