By John Webster; Directed by Louisa Proske
Produced by Red Bull Theater
Off Broadway, Classic
Runs through 4.14.19
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street
by Dan Rubins on 3.31.19
The company of The White Devil. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
BOTTOM LINE: A sharp, contemporary take on John Webster's 1612 feast of bloodlust.
There’s no question John Webster knew his Shakespeare. Not only did Webster give Shakespeare a shout-out in the introduction to the first edition of his play The White Devil (written at the end of Shakespeare’s lifetime), but he also borrowed from Ophelia’s mad scene verbatim: “There’s rosemary for you; and rue for you,” a traumatized woman says late in the play, passing possibly imaginary flowers to the folks nearby.
But Webster, as shown in The White Devil and then in his most famous play The Duchess of Malfi, only really tipped his hat in Shakespeare’s direction as he charted his own course. When one of The White Devil’s miscreants brainstorms the perfect murder, it sounds like Webster’s individuating battle cry: “O, my lord, I would have our plot be ingenious, and have it hereafter recorded for example, rather than borrow example.” Webster’s own course, as seen in Red Bull’s pretty wicked and pretty satisfying new production of The White Devil, was all about the seamy, steamy underside of the early modern imagination.
When the knotty, nasty plot of The White Devil kicks off, Vittoria (Lisa Birnbaum) and the Duke of Brachiano (Daniel Oreskes) have been having some extramarital fun together, with the assistance of Vittoria’s weasley brother Flamineo (Tommy Schrider), who stage manages their trysts. Sex isn’t the only thing that Flamineo excels at facilitating: before long—skip the rest of this paragraph to avoid some early spoilers—he has helped bump off the lovers’ respective spouses, too. Brachiano’s brother-in-law Francisco (T. Ryder Smith) and Francisco’s pal, future Pope Monticelso (Robert Cuccioli), are none too happy with this turn of events and—classic Webster!—seek grisly revenge.
I’ve seen one production of The White Devil before, a candlelit noir adventure at Shakespeare’s Globe in London that often snuffed out those candles in favor of pitch blackness. No such darkness here, at least not literally speaking: Louisa Proske, principally an opera director here tackling one of the more operatic of early modern dramas, wants you to see every last spurt of blood. And, oh boy, does it spurt.
It would ruin Proske’s most queasily delightful surprise to say more about the gore, but the final massacre is the piece de resistance of a series of modernizing choices that mainly work well (with contemporary sets and costumes by, respectively, Kate Noll and Beth Goldenberg). The exiled Count Lodovico (played with charming immorality by Derek Smith) checks in with Rome over video chat. A poisoned helmet appears here as a poisoned pair of virtual reality goggles. Security camera footage seems omnipresent, reminding us that eyes and ears are everywhere and anyone could betray anyone else at any time. (The snazzy video design is by Yana Birÿkova.) Only in the technological flattening of The White Devil’s magical element, a conjuror who summons up mirages of offstage death scenes, does the modernization lose step with Webster.
The speed with which seemingly principal characters get offed allows for ample double casting. Smith steals the show in that regard—I didn’t realize until afterwards that he plays both the slimy Lodovico and the surprisingly sympathetic Camillo, Vittoria’s guileless husband. Cherie Corinne Rice also pivots impressively between the pre-adolescent Giovanni and the sensually sinister servant Zanche. As Cornelia, Vittoria and Flamineo’s righteous, rightfully frustrated mother, Socorro Santiago goes to town, chewing out the siblings for their depravity. T. Ryder Smith’s Francisco is an enjoyably self-involved schemer who suggests an incestuous undercurrent in his quest for justice for his sister, and Schrider’s Flamineo is a wry, impulsive bad-boy, engined by his own passion for turning his family’s fortunes into a series of plot twists.
But The White Devil rises and falls on its anti-heroine Vittoria, and this production never quite centers Vittoria’s story. From the beginning, Birnbaum’s Vittoria and Oreskes’ Brachiano feel like the sort of socialite and mob boss pairing that could absolutely kill to get what they want; there’s no sense that it’s their unquenchable passion for one another that propels them on to a warped, murderous path. Even though Webster doesn’t give Vittoria much time alone with the audience to reveal her intentions, Birnbaum’s take feels overly enigmatic, even in her crucial, courageous trial scene: is this Vittoria a partner of the Machiavellian men surrounding her, or their pawn fighting for her voice to matter? The play actually offers a bitter portrayal of the way society—along with the justice system—punishes women by branding them whores and letting the men walk free: with a thornier Vittoria, that could be more crisply accentuated here.
Happily, though, it’s plot, not character, that ultimately drives Webster’s writing, and the crystal-clear, eminently accessible reading of the text, partnered with Proske’s nimble, active staging keeps the audience ever on its toes. The cast locates plenty of the humor, too—Webster was a funny guy. Laughing in the face of death? Surely Shakespeare would have approved of that.
(The White Devil plays at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, through April 14, 2019. The running time is 2 hours 30 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30; Thursdays and Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $77-$97 and are available at redbulltheater.com or by calling 212-352-3101.)
The White Devil is by John Webster. Directed by Louisa Proske. Set Design by Kate Noll. Lighting Design by Jiyoun Chang. Music and Sound Design by Chad Raines. Costume Design by Beth Goldenberg. Video Design by Yana Birÿkova. Stage Manager is Jane Pole.
The cast is Amara James Aja, Jenny Bacon, Lisa Birnbaum, Robert Cuccioli, Edward O'Blenis, Daniel Oreskes, Cherie Corinne Rice, Socorro Santiago, Tommy Schrider, Derek Smith, and T. Ryder Smith.