Not seen in New York since 1965, John Webster’s Jacobean revenge play, The White Devil, has been given a juicy, vigorous modern dress production by Red Bull Theater which specializes in Elizabethan and post-Shakespearean dramas. While not as great as Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi or Shakespeare’s psychological dramas, this second-rung tragedy from 1612 has been directed by Louisa Proske with live video and contemporary trappings in a style that is always riveting, always engrossing, particularly notable for a play that will be unfamiliar to most theatergoers.
Webster’s title has nothing to do with race. It rather means the whitewashed devil as depraved characters pretend to be good to hide their crimes and misdeeds which describes a good many of the people in the play. Inspired by a true story that took place in Italy 30 years before the play was written, The White Devil is first set in Rome and later in Padua. The theme is one of greed, hypocrisy and unbridled desire. The Duke of Brachiano, married to Isabella, has developed a passion for Vittoria Corombona, fueled by the work of his secretary Flamineo, Vittoria’s brother, who hopes to advance his career. When Brachiano’s wife Isabella arrives to plead with him, he rejects her and with the help of Flamineo arranges to have her and Vittoria’s husband Camillo murdered.
Vittoria is put on trial for the murder of her husband, found guilty without evidence, and Cardinal Monticelso, Brachiano’s uncle, condemns her to a convent for penitent whores. Isabella’s brother Francisco de Medici, Duke of Florence, plots revenge by writing a love letter to Vittoria which he allows to fall into the hands of Brachiano. However, Vittoria convinces her lover of her fidelity, and they elope to Padua. The Cardinal is elected Pope and excommunicates Brachiano and Vittoria who by now have married.
Aside from Francisco’s studiously wanting retribution for the death of his sister, the formerly banished Count Lodovico, a depraved playboy, is allowed to return to Rome and reveals that he too loved Isabella and now wants his revenge. Three mysterious strangers enter Brachiano’s service: Francisco disguised as the Moor General Mulinassar, and Lodovico and his friend Gasparo, dressed as Capuchin monks, whom he has hired as assassins. Zanche, Vittoria’s Moorish maid, falls in love with her supposed compatriot Mulinassar and reveals to him the murders of Camillo and Isabella and Flamineo’s part in them. Eventually with the revengers’ plotting on the one hand and the criminals attempting to cover their own tracks, the play ends in a series of murders and punishments. There are not many left standing at the end.
The stage at the Lucille Lortel Theatre has been reconfigured into a thrust theater with the audience sitting on three sides, much like the mainstage space at Theater for a New Audience. The effect is to bring the audience closer to the action. Kate Noll’s unit set design has a wall of windows and doors outlined in gray with large television screens above the stage used for both closed circuit television hook ups and for the Pope’s proclamation, in Yana Birÿkova’s surprising video design. Jiyoun Chang’s unobtrusive lighting does not seem to change much but keeps the viewer focused on the action. Beth Goldenberg’s modern costumes mainly in black and white except for Vittoria and the Cardinal give the play an attractive contemporary look.
Under the direction of Louisa Proske, the cast’s diction for both the poetry and the philosophy is superb and most of the actors make the most of their juicy roles. As the Duke of Brachiano whose lust starts off the whole cycle of murder and retribution, Daniel Oreskes is singlemindedly lascivious. As his paramour Vittoria Corombona, Lisa Birnbaum as the feminist minded Jacobean who is also looked at like a loose woman in her time is sexy and commanding. She never lets you forget when she is on stage, looking fantastic in Goldenberg’s designer style clothes. Derek Smith gives a tour de force performance as both her mild mannered, nerdy husband and the depraved Count Lodovico. Surprising in a role in which one could eat the scenery, Robert Cuccioli as Cardinal Monticelso, later Pope Paul IV, is very subdued and low-key, notable in the context of this story of outrageous behavior.
Tommy Schrider as Flamineo, Vittorio’s brother and Brachiano’s secretary, is evil incarnate as he plots to forward his plans at the expense of everyone else. As Cornelia, mother to Vittoria, Flamineo and Marcello, Socorro Santiago gives a very impassioned operatic-style performance. T. Ryder Smith’s Francisco de Medici, Duke of Florence, is coldly merciless in seeking his revenge on the adulterers and murderers. Jenny Bacon is remarkably different in three roles: Isabella, wronged Duchess of Brachiano; Hortensio, aide to Lodovico and later Brachiano; and as the Lawyer in the trial of Vittoria. Not all the doubling works as well: while Cherie Corinne Rice throws herself into the role of the double-dealing Zanche, servant to Vittoria, she is later miscast as young Giovanni, son to Brachiano and Isabella.
While the Red Bull Theater’s production of The White Devil is unlikely to change anyone’s mind as to the play’s merits, Louisa Proske’s modern dress production makes the case for this play as being eminently theatrical for our time. Not only is the production highly enjoyable as characters go about plotting and counterplotting, but its ability to make crystal clear an unfamiliar Jacobean tragedy is a feat in itself. The body count rivals Shakespeare’s major tragedies. Several of the actors in double roles prove their remarkable versatility.
The White Devil (through April 14, 2019)
Red Bull Theater
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, south of Bleecker Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.Redbulltheater.com
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission