Ramapo subverts gender roles in ‘The Duchess of Malfi’

Ramapo College’s theater department is traveling back to the 16th century for its second main stage production of the semester, “The Duchess of Malfi.” The production began its six-show run last Thursday, turning the Sharp Theater into a Renaissance world full of romance, tragedy and deceit.

Written by English playwright John A. Webster and based on a true story, “Duchess” follows the widowed Duchess as she falls in love with and marries her steward, Antonio, despite her brothers’ efforts to prevent her from remarrying. They hire a spy to keep an eye on her, and after her brothers discover that she birthed Antonio’s children, she, Antonio and the children are forced into hiding, which eventually leads to everyone’s downfall.

From the start, it’s clear that this show was a labor of love for everyone involved. No detail went overlooked from the shifting red and blue hues of the lighting design to the magnificent costumes to the faintest sounds incorporated into the sound design. The grandiose yet plain gray set creates a blank canvas for the play’s glamour and drama to shine.

Director Peter A. Campbell, who is also a professor of theater history and criticism, shared that the show’s high intensity was very much intentional.

“We often spoke in rehearsals and production meetings about the operatic feel of this production, which hopefully the audiences will experience with the poetic text, the immersive soundscape, the grand costumes and gestures, and the massive set,” he said in an email.

One of the biggest themes within “Duchess” is privacy and trust. There are few moments when anyone is alone on stage – whether they know it or not. This is especially true for the Duchess, who is physically always accompanied by her maid, Cariola, and is betrayed by her confidante Bosola, who is actually the spy hired by her brothers.

Senior Keila Haskins, who portrays the Duchess, shared that the lack of privacy within the show strays from theater conventions as well.

The creative team behind Ramapo’s production of “Duchess” took artistic liberties to refresh the text. Photo courtesy of Mason Murphy

“I really love how some theatrical conventions – like asides, which are typically only between the audience and the character speaking – have become broken,” she said in an email. “Some characters are always lurking, some characters overhear secret conversations; nothing and no one is safe in the world of this play.” 

This isn’t the only way that Ramapo’s production of “Duchess” is unconventional either. Many of the creative decisions deviate from the expected to create a modern product out of a historical text.

The characters use seemingly strange hand gestures throughout the show, which, as explained in the program, stem from the Netflix show “The OA” and are used “to resist the violence in the world around them, to transcend it, and to discover a new understanding of the world.” 

The show also makes use of autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). The show creates a communal ASMR experience by projecting the cast members’ whispering voices from large speakers that line both sides of the theater. These whispers occur during pivotal moments, exposing the secrets and vulnerabilities hidden beneath the characters’ interactions.

Perhaps the most unconventional aspect of the show is that the entire main cast is comprised of people who were assigned female at birth. Campbell explained that the initial reasoning for this was to subvert the play’s all-male casting from the 17th century – but it has become so much more than that, especially given the show’s subject matter.

“We wanted to explore the ways that gender has been constructed then and now,” he said. “I hope audiences will also find things that make them consider gender and the ways it informs identity and relationships, especially in terms of power, autonomy, and choice.”

On all fronts, the cast, crew and creative team have done an outstanding job in creating “Duchess.” The actors gave stellar emotional performances, from Julia O’Toole as the Duchess’ angry brother Ferdinand to Haskins’ striking portrayal of the Duchess. 

Tiara Rodriguez provides a stand-out performance as sneaky and deceitful Bosola, maintaining the character’s calm as he quite literally backstabs everyone until his emotions boil over in the end, leading to the character’s quest for revenge. 

“Duchess” acts as a commentary on corruption, violence and inequality, which allows the show to continue to resonate today. At its core, though, it’s about female autonomy and resistance. In a time when women’s rights are increasingly under threat, seeing the Duchess fight back against the oppressive men in her life who are attempting to take control of her body is empowering. 

“From [the Duchess], we can all learn to stand resilient against the ‘oppressors will’ and know that in the end our innocence will speak for itself,” Haskins said.

If you haven’t had a chance to enjoy this wonderfully complex show, you can still catch it on April 13-15 at 8 p.m. in the Berrie Center.



Featured photo courtesy of Mason Murphy