Hidden Room’s “The Duchess of Malfi”

“In a Hidden Room somewhere within 311 W 7th Street” is the location for Hidden Room Theater’s production of The Duchess of Malfi. The tragic show kicks off the month of October with a wonderfully macabre tone. Playing in the York Rite Masonic Lodge through October 20, Hidden Room brings the Renaissance to Austin and leaves it to fester in a pool of blood and betrayal. 

The infamously grizzly John Webster play follows the love story between the Duchess of Malfi and Antonio, her steward. The tragedy’s 16th century family politics spares the audience no mercy and details murder and insanity in unforgiving detail. In many scenes considered uncouth to modern audiences, The Duchess of Malfi leaves the audience squirming in their seat. 

Beth Burns, the company’s artistic director, knows how to build a feeling of dread in her audience. The York Rite Masonic Lodge, although a popular Hidden Room venue, added to the mystery of Webster’s play. Entrance to the lodge was granted through a password,  a creative opportunity for the audience to participate setting the scene. With trap doors behind thrones and secret symbols obscured around the lodge, the masonic meeting hall set the courtly stage. 

Possibly the most visually stunning and horrifying scene in the adaptation solidified The Duchess of Malfi’s position among horror classics. The lights dim almost completely  as the Prince reveals to the Duchess the body of Antonio and their eldest child in an attempt to drive her mad. The life-like wax figures draped in death over the chair brought audible horror to the audience. In a moment of gothic uncanny, Burns relished in her effective prop. 

Duchess of Malfi
Title page of the 1623 quarto version of The Duchess of Malfi. Photo: Lebrecht Authors.

Hidden Room’s emphasis on historicity brought them a partnership with the Globe Theater in London. Their research on Renaissance Gesture Technique hopes to resurrect an old way of interacting with plays. The goal of Burns using the Gesture Technique is to perform Webster as it was on the Renaissance stage. As part of the sponsorship, The Duchess of Malfi will open at the Globe in June 202 for a limited run. 

“Whenever we are able to conjure back these old playing practices from the dead, it links us back to who we were, what we enjoyed, and most importantly, how we shared the stories that were most important to us. And that link to our past is bolstering.” Burns said in an interview with Austin 360, “We’re not alone, we’ve never been alone, and our problems then will continue to be our problems in the future. Let’s see if we can get a leg up by learning from their lessons.”

One of the hardships of producing a Webster play is the lack of relatability to modern day audiences where directors have to overcome a centuries long generational gap. Throughout The Duchess of Malfi”, certain dramatic scenes were met with stifled giggles from the audience. At every one of these instances, Burns beamed in the corner. The borderline absurdity of hiding one – let alone three –  pregnancies wasn’t lost on the audience. However, the importance of history to Hidden Room  viewed the laughs as a learning opportunity.

“Making time machines is what I live for!” Burns told Austin 360, “Our work with scholars is so important to me, and it’s thrilling to me that there is still so much to uncover about the ways we used to tell our stories, and therefore learn more about who we were, and who we are.”

Although the plot was filled with infanticide and regicide most foul, the room was filled with music and dancing. A local quartet played Renaissance pieces throughout the play and major exposition happened during dances. At the end of the production, the actors performed an elaborate court dance as part of curtain call. Not only did it help dissipating the feeling of dread, but it brought everyone together to celebrate the fantastic feat of a show.

Murder and miscommunication led Hidden Room’s production of The Duchess of Malfi to sadistic victory. There is seldom a better way to celebrate the month of October than to experience a gothic tale of romance. Although the end of its Austin run draws near, the Globe Theater should prepare for the spectacle headed their way.


Poster by Five and Four, Jennymarie Jemison

Director: Beth Burns

Stage Manager: Rachel Steed

Costume Design: Jenny McNee

Asst Costume Design: Star Maddox

Music Director: Howard Burkett

Dance Choreography: Kelly Hasandras

Fight Choreography: Toby Minor

Prop Master: Marco Noyola

Master of Art: Jennymarie Jemison

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