Joseph Fisher’s ebulliently sordid (I Am Still) the Duchess of Malfi is less an updating of John Webster’s original Jacobean revenge drama than it is a romp in its macabre sandbox. The plot and characters have been jumbled and streamlined into a violently dissonant two-act that winkingly borrows tropes from camp and noir. Thus, the title amounts to an interesting bit of sport on the play’s identity; it, like the titular duchess, slyly insists on remaining itself.
The setup remains similar: The widowed duchess of Malfi (Sara Catherine Wheatley) is forbidden ever to remarry by her two brothers, the insane Ferdinand (Jake Street) and the sociopathic cardinal (Todd van Voris, in a beautifully deadpan performance), but nonetheless secretly marries her poised steward, Antonio (Vin Shambry). Retribution ensues.
In Fisher’s take, Bosola (Chris Murray), the instrument of that retribution, is reimagined as a wisecracking, immoral war vet with posturing straight out of The Wild One; the duchess vamps like a celebutante; and once-stolid confidante Delio (Nicholas Hongola) is recast as a comic, dandified Perez Hilton figure in cahoots with the audience. In director Jon Kretzu and set designer Daniel Meeker’s staging, the duchy of Amalfi is a steampunk assemblage of Gothic past and present, where a church and a discotheque amount to essentially the same thing—red, black, white and flickering light.
The play’s second act tilts more serious—the punch line comes first and the fall second, in the old Italian style—and here only some of the characters survive, literally and figuratively. In keeping with a spelled-out moral about contemporary parasitic celeb worship, the duchess much too suddenly becomes a noble (and willing) victim of the audience as much as the cardinal, while the overplayed Bosola’s turn in her favor remains unfortunately obscure and unlikely, despite quite a bit of primal-scene hand-wringing. But the play retains its interest throughout, in no small part because of the actors’ knowing, agile performances and the director’s similar agility from scene to scene. Kept mostly at distance from the broadly sketched characters, one finds it quite easy to sit back and enjoy the dishy spectacle just like we’re (not) supposed to.
SEE IT: Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison St., 241-1278, artistsrep.org. 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7:30 pm Sundays. Closes Feb. 12. $25-$50.