A recent headline in The Washington Post read, “Does Netflix Have a Killer Problem?” The story was referring to the high number of successful, murder-themed programs on Netflix that “spotlight gruesome violence, often committed against women.” I guess we now have an answer to the question: “If John Webster were alive today, what would he be doing?” Writing and producing torture porn on America’s top streaming service, obviously.
The English playwright is known today for two gory revenge tragedies that are rarely revived, The Duchess of Malfi (1613) and The White Devil (1612), which is even scarcer ’round these parts (I saw it last at BAM in an Australian production 18 years ago). Part of the reason for the obscurity is the fact that Webster – like Jonson, Fletcher, Beaumont and others – has for centuries been overshadowed by the genius of Shakespeare, not to mention the literary-entertainment complex that keeps Elizabethan and Jacobean drama Will-centric. But also, the plays just aren’t as good. Webster was witty, highly learned and unafraid to pick and steal from contemporaries, but his plots are convoluted, the psychology’s shallow, and the poetry is nowhere near as sublime as ole Shakes. There’s plenty of killing, bombast and acrid satire. Intense beauty, deathless characters and lyricism? Not so much.
Even so, let’s toss our caps in the air for Red Bull Theater, which is putting on a neatly modernized and fiercely acted account of The White Devil. Savvy director Louisa Proske and her all-female design team on set, costumes and video (Kate Noll, Beth Goldenberg and Yana Birÿkova) create a thrust stage of modern, minimalist surfaces that make the staid Lucille Lortel seem more dynamic than usual. The costumes are sexy and flattering, such as the clingy, purple evening dress worn by Vittoria Corombona (vivacious Lisa Birnbaum) when we first meet her.
Vittoria’s sexual desire, and the greedy amorality of her brother Flamineo (a vulturous Tommy Schrider), drive the dire action. She has fallen in love with the bearish, impulsive Duke of Brachiano (stony, manful Daniel Oreskes), an illicit passion he requites. The only problem: Both are married. Flamineo, pander and villainous factotum, offers to resolve the conflict by murdering Brachiano’s wife Isabella (Jenny Bacon) and Vittoria’s milquetoast husband Camillo (Derek Smith). Guilt-free, true love, happily ever after? Don’t be ridiculous.
Isabella’s hot-tempered brother Francisco, Duke of Florence (T. Ryder Smith) and the priest Monticelso (Robert Cuccioli), cousin to Camillo, join to punish these wicked sinners. Monticelso puts Vittoria on trial to slut-shame her, but she’ll have none of it. The courtroom scene is one of the play’s best, as Vittoria professes not to know what “whore” means, and Monticelso schools her in vicious, misogynist terms. Goldenberg clothes Birnbaum in an ivory pantsuit, in case there’s any doubt in the audience as to who the white devil might be.
The cast is outstanding, making a strong case for the tragedy. Derek Smith also plays the licentious, kill-happy Count Lodovico, darkly resplendent in tight leather pants and porn ’stache. Knockout newcomer Cherie Corinne Rice plays the “Moorish” slave Zanche, snaking around the periphery of the stage with her half-scarred face hidden under a mask. As the wronged (and eventually poisoned) wife Isabella, Bacon transforms from wounded saint to vengeful demon in a terrifying transformation. And Broadway veteran Cuccioli is a masterful study in icy evil as the corrupt cleric.
I’d call the piece Renaissance pulp if it didn’t come with such a rarefied literary pedigree, but Webster does contrive a double-pistol fake shootout, followed by a triple execution. (In the bloody climax, rather than swords, the actors wield power drills. Very Quentin Tarantino.) While it steals shamelessly from Hamlet (Ophelia’s mad scene), no one would call The White Devil as brilliant as Shakespeare. Still, more laughs than Titus Andronicus? Maybe so.
David Cote is a theater critic, playwright and opera librettist based in New York City.