Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

The Duchess of Malfi
Babes with Blades Theatre Company
Review by Christine Malcom

Also see Karen's recent reviews of Baked! The Musical, Birthday Candles, Cat's Cradle and Little Shop of Horrors

Maureen Yasko and Shane Richlen
Photo by Joe Mazza
Babes with Blades Theatre Company continues its 2023-2024 season with the highly regarded Renaissance tragedy The Duchess of Malfi. Under the direction of Hayley Rice, and with the company's typically impressive fight choreography (fight direction by Maya Vinice Prentiss), the production finds humor in the gruesome and pathos in surprising places among the play's unexpectedly complex characters.

The play centers on the titular Duchess, a widow who falls for and seizes the moment to marry her steward. Marrying anyone at all would have been met with the objections of her brothers, who seek to control both her and her fortune, but the reality that she has married so far beneath her leads the two deep into an elaborate conspiracy against her and her new husband, leading to her death (and eventually and through convoluted means, the death of virtually every character in the play).

It's an ambitious undertaking, as is typical for the company. And as is just as typical, the company tackles it with great success overall. The action is staged on a thrust, the floor of which is marbled black with a cross/sword overlay. The upstage wall is a crimson velvet curtain that is occasionally tied up to allow ghostly action to play out behind a semi-transparent muslin curtain. Otherwise, Marcus Klein's scenic design comprises a few furniture pieces (a dressing table/desk and chair, a divan, and a cabinet for the characters' body-hiding needs) that seem likely to be thrifted items but deliver the needed opulence, while Laura J. Wiley's lighting design generates the required shadows and eerie illumination.

Jennifer Mohr's costume design is simply stunning. The brothers of the Duchess, a Cardinal and a Duke, are costumed in a straightforward, period-appropriate way, representing social stability and oppression (although Mohr can't resist giving us a glimpse of leather beneath the cardinal's robes in a scene with his mistress). In contrast, the rest of the cast is outfitted in a blend of Renaissance and punk/fetish look that mix denim, fishnet, and so on, with silk and velvet. The blend is most subtle in the Duchess's costume, drawing her closer to the characters of lower class. The look Mohr creates is mirrored in Kiera Battles' sound design, which features a variety of 1980s alternative music originals and covers.

Under Rice's capable directions the cast handle the dialogue so admirably that most of the time, its distance from everyday speech falls away, allowing the interest of the play, which is found in the focus on what would be minor characters in almost every tragedy from the same period, to shine through.

Maureen Yasko stands out, in particular, as Bosola, another steward who manages to become tangled in the brothers' machinations. The very fact that Webster even thought to include–and spend considerable time exploring–a "face turn" for a character of this type is interesting enough, and Yasko inhabits the character and brings her conflicts to life in a way that is just as impressive as her mastery of the stage combat that is central to the play's ending.

Of similar interest is the character of Ferdinand, the Duchess's twin brother. The production treats him as a sort of unexpected foil for Bosola–the nobleman whom one expects to be the focus of emotional and psychological development who simply goes mad after ordering his sister's murder at Bosola's hand. Shane Richlen gives an effectively broad performance, going big at every conceivable moment and still hitting the comic beats that the production consistently finds with great precision. The same is true of Carlos Wagener-Sobrero as the Cardinal. Although Wagener-Sobrero does not have quite as meaty a role as Richlen does, he's appropriately sinister and reserved.

The roles of the Duchess and Antonio, her new husband, are surprisingly small. Carrie Hardin turns in a solid performance as the Duchess, but the character is regrettably rather thin. As Antonio, Clara Byczkowski has more to work with, and they are charismatic and appealing in both their scenes, with Hardin and especially in their connection with Hazel Monson's Delia, a courtier and friend.

Monson and Carina Lastimosa as Julia, the Cardinal's lover, are both outstanding in roles that other plays and other productions might have minimized or paid little attention to. The two provide far more than comic relief. In fact, although the title character is a bit of a hard sell as "a woman finding agency for herself," in Rice's words, these two women emerge from the background to make the audience take notice of characters typically reduced to stereotypes.

The Duchess of Malfi runs through October 21, 2023, at The Factory Theater, 1623 W. Howard, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit