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When a duchess marries below her class, her two brothers unlatch a plan of revenge that destroys themselves in the process. As the adage goes, the heart wants what it wants, but in the case of the Duchess and her steward Antonio in John Webster’s “Duchess of Malfi,” there’s something larger than their pride at risk when their love is found out.

Flagstaff Shakespeare Festival presents “Duchess of Malfi” with a series of performances outside under the festival tent at the Museum of Northern Arizona, 3101 N. Fort Valley Road. The play opens Friday, June 7, at 7 p.m. and runs through June 16. Tickets are $15-$25. Visit www.flagshakes.org for a complete list of dates and times and more information.

In the story, the widowed Duchess, played by Keondra Gold, falls for Antonio, played by Donté Green, even though he is beneath her social class and she is forbidden by her brothers to remarry. Both actors make their FlagShakes debut this season as the festival explores more classic Renaissance plays outside of those written by the Bard.

“Duchess of Malfi” fits alongside Shakespeare’s works, though, as it includes star-crossed lovers and aspects of tragedy as well as asides in which the actors interact directly with the audience, something Gold said she enjoys about the play.

“That’s what Shakespeare’s actors did. They speak to the audience because they’re kind of an extension of our brains, our thoughts,” she said. “The audience will know things before we do. They know the secrets, the lies, the deceit, the surprises.”

And the play is full of lies and deceit. It is loosely based on the real life of Giovanna d'Aragona, Duchess of Amalfi. Following the death of her husband the Duchess finds love again but must keep it a secret from everyone as her union with Antonio would be looked down on by most. Adding to the stress, she’s under the constant watch of Bosola, who has been hired by her brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, to find out if she’s disobeyed their demands.

“She just goes through a whirlwind of things,” Gold said. “What I’ve been told about my acting is that I can be graceful but strong, and I think that is exactly who the Duchess is, graceful but strong, and she keeps her composure, even with all the things that she goes through.”

Green is originally from Detroit and traveled from southern California where he just finished his first year of graduate school at California Institute of the Arts, to take on the role of Antonio.

“It’s all new and different for me, but it’s also a thrilling experience because it’s for my craft, it’s for what I love, and I think I have that in common with Antonio,” Green said. “He loves the Duchess and he’s willing to go to great lengths just to be with her. He was supposed to not be able to marry someone like this, so even when they do get together he shocked himself. It’s been fun to find the curiosity in Antonio.”

FlagShakes executive director Dawn Tucker, who also directed "Duchess," said she enjoys discovering new talent. She said she is proud of FlagShakes’ commitment to casting with talent above all else in mind in order to bring only the best actors to Flagstaff audiences.

Raquel Mackenzie, who plays Ferdinand, is also new to FlagShakes with this production. She, Green and Gold play off each other well as Antonio and the Duchess bask in the glow of their profound love and Ferdinand lurks nearby, waiting for the Duchess to slip up.

“I always feel like I’m making a big gamble casting on auditions and emails, trying to get to know people, and then it’s always so thrilling when they have good chemistry with each other and the rest of the cast, and I’m like, ‘Oh, thank god, I did that well,’” Tucker said with a laugh.

“Duchess of Malfi” also comes to life thanks to members of the crew such as assistant director Ryan Wilson, choreographer Hannah Fontes and music director Sean Golightly.

“The older the company gets, the more we’re piecing together the people who do each of these things, and they all do such a great job,” Tucker said.

From the unexpected love between the Duchess and Antonio, “Duchess of Malfi” aims to reflect real life in all its messy glory. Our greatest plans sometimes fail despite careful planning, and all we can do is take the rocky path that’s offered.

“Shakespeare said [in ‘Hamlet’] we hold the mirror up to nature,” Gold said. “It’s great to have classical pieces done where people can just see human nature on stage.”

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