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Theatre in Review: The White Devil (Red Bull Theater/Lucille Lortel Theatre)

Lisa Birnbaum, Tommy Schrider. Photo: Carol Rosegg

The knives come out along with guns, power drills, and various baroque forms of poisoning, in Louisa Proske's production of John Webster's Jacobean shocker. Webster was a wild one, spinning elaborate intrigues and revenge plots with such undisguised glee that one imagines if he were alive today he would be snapped up for the writer's room at, say, Russian Doll or Black Mirror. There is also something astonishingly contemporary about his unsavory cast of characters, few of whom resist the urge to give in to his or her worst impulses. We rarely get a look at The White Devil or The Duchess of Malfi, Webster's other key work -- the last major production of The White Devil was nearly forty years ago, and with a cast that included Harriet Harris and Lisa Banes, it must have been something to see -- and thanks are due to Red Bull Theater for its dedication to this underserved era of theatre history. This one is a mixed blessing, however: Until it gives in to laughable displays of cinematic violence, this production is good enough to make one wish it were just a little bit better.

I can't really give a full synopsis of The White Devil. Well, I could, but you'd be scratching your head, and that's if you didn't get the vapors. Let's just say the action begins with the Duke of Brachiano, to whom moral scruples are unknown, falling for the married Vittoria Corombona, who bears a certain resemblance to the femmes fatales of twentieth-century noir fiction: Arguably the play's most fascinating figure, she alternates between the roles of victim and predator with alarming ease. This illicit attachment leads to the elimination of both Brachiano's and Vittoria's spouses -- Isabella and Camillo, respectively -- setting in motion a series of interlocking revenge plots that leave the cast of characters considerably thinned out by the final curtain. It's typical of Webster's savage, coruscating style that one of the principal players in these deadly games is Monticelso, a Roman Catholic cardinal, who, in the course of the action, is elected pope. And you thought today's Vatican has problems!

The best thing about Proske's production is that it lays out Webster's labyrinthine plot with crystal clarity. Even with a cast full of dissemblers, side-switchers, and killers-for-hire, we always grasp what everyone is up to and where they stand; this is no mean feat -- and, in many scenes, the characters seize on their arias, delivering them with relish and malice aforethought. When Jenny Bacon, as the wronged Isabella, having learned of Brachiano's infidelity, stages a semi-public breakdown, seeking maximum embarrassment for her husband, or when Robert Cuccioli, as Monticelso, weaponizing his words, calls Vittoria a whore, adding a scalding definition ("They are first/Sweetmeats which rot the eater; in man's nostrils/Poison'd perfumes. They are cozening alchemy;/Shipwrecks in calmest weather"), you feel the burn. If the entire production was played at this level, The White Devil would be a major achievement.

But Proske has been unable to settle on a prevailing tone; the action shifts between a fury that really means it and a baroque version of black comedy that seems altogether too easy, as if everyone involved is saying, Isn't this a camp? Rather than focusing on the premeditated evil that lurks under the words, the director allows some in the cast to overemote, especially Tommy Schrider as Flamineo, who stops at nothing, including fratricide, in his efforts at shopping Vittoria, his sister, to Brachiano. Similarly, Lisa Birnbaum, as Vittoria, never seems to make up her mind about her supremely opportunistic character, offering a new attitude for each appearance. And Proske can't decide if The White Devil is sufficiently gripping on its own terms or if it needs extra-bloody flourishes à la Brian De Palma or Quentin Tarantino.

If the cast really got at the ugliness embedded in the text, they wouldn't need such unconvincing bits as a triple murder via power drill, which sends blood spattering in all directions. As it is, one wonders why Proske and Red Bull artistic director Jesse Berger felt that the time was ripe for a revival of this knotty work. With its cast of scheming, hypocritical aristocrats; an ambitious, power-seeking female protagonist; and an element of church corruption, it would seem to invite many interpretations. But staged on Kate Noll's oddly neutral set, which may remind one of a conference room in a second-rate hotel or an office in a strip mall, it is surprisingly lacking in a mordant point of view.

An associated issue involves the cast's uneven handling of the play's verse. Some excel at delivering Webster's jagged, denunciatory speeches, while others lose the rhythm of the lines, chopping them to diminished effect. This happens even in the case of individual performers handling multiple roles. If Bacon impresses as Isabella, she is less at ease as Hortensio, one of Brachiano's aides, and she mugs ferociously as the lawyer who mounts the case against Vittoria. Schrider rarely gets full value out of the verse either, a pity given his pivotal role in the action.

Fortunately, Derek Smith is appropriately frigid as the piratical Count Lodovico, who, escaping exile for his scandalous ways, joins the company of revengers. (He also appears as Vittoria's reluctant husband, Camillo, here rather unimaginatively portrayed as a closet case in a pink sweater, hugging his pillow like Linus with his security blanket.) Daniel Oreskes nails Brachiano's concupiscence and amorality, making him the driving force of the plot. Socorro Santiago effectively rains down curses as Cornelia, mother of Vittoria and Flamineo. T. Ryder Smith's Francisco de Medici -- another Isabella sibling -- is the most adept and subtle of intriguers. Cuccioli, best known for his musical theatre roles but the possessor of a solid classical technique, is imposing as Monticelso, whose hatred for Vittoria is a fearsome thing. Cherie Corrine Rice, a new face, offers an impressive double turn as Giovanni, the unlucky son of Brachiano and Isabella, and as Zanche, Vittoria's servant, described in the script as a Moor and here sporting a black half-mask that conceals a massive facial scar, like the Phantom of the Opera.

Jiyoun Chang's lighting provides a variety of looks, including a chilling blue wash, a softer lavender wash with key light for the actors' faces, and an intentionally vulgar chase sequence filled with saturated colors for a wedding so corrupt that it cries out to heaven. Beth Goldenberg's costumes are fluently done, but one wonders what the point is of presenting Brachiano and Flamineo as made men with leather jackets and loud shirts, and Vittoria as one of the Real Housewives of New Jersey, with plunging décolletage, short mink coat, and high heels that send a message -- and a not a spiritual one. These choices seem arbitrary at best, since everyone else seems to be a politician trailed by staffers and security guards. The video design, by Yana Birÿkova, sensibly and effectively fills in some of the script's shorter, but still important, scenes; she also delivers the sequence in which -- via dumb show, according to the script -- Brachiano previews the murders of Isabella and Camillo, rendered in highly contrasting styles. Chad Raines provides underscoring for both deaths, along with music that runs the gamut from Hollywood Strings to EDM; he also handles the sound effects. (I wish he had done something about the scenes of gunplay, which are undermined by the underwhelming pop of cap pistols.)

Whatever this production's fascinations, it runs out of steam in the last half hour, neutering some of its most ferocious scenes through overkill. The White Devil is surely a play with much to say to us today, but it requires more overall discipline and a coherent vision if it is to work to full effect. This one will largely be of interest to scholars of the period and those with an affection for the gore and furious poetry of the Jacobean stage, a yearning not rarely addressed in our theatre. -- David Barbour

(2 April 2019)

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