If you find plausible psychology aggravating and a humane outlook just rubs you the wrong way, please meet John Webster. A playwright with a deep devotion to gore, he churned out some of the 17th-century’s most lurid tragedies and there was nothing — books, a helmet, a tennis racket, a fart — that he didn’t long to empoison. (The urchin from “Shakespeare in Love” who liked to torture mice? That’s him.) Red Bull Theater resurrects his 1612 play, “The White Devil” with mischief and raunch and sibling incest and maybe necrophilia, because hey, why not? Anyone expecting Shakespeare might see if the box office does refunds.
T.S. Eliot famously credited Webster as showing the skull beneath the skin. The director Louisa Proske’s production shows some skin, too. The set thrusts impudently into the audience and the costumes, by Beth Goldenberg, look like knock-off Versace, appropriate to this sleazy imagined Padua. Here, the Duke of Brachiano (Daniel Oreskes) is infatuated with Vittoria Corombona (Lisa Birnbaum). (“The White Devil” was based on a true story. Like a lot of its characters, that basis is loose.) The snag: They’re both married to other people. The solution: Murder. In a Webster play, murders are like jelly beans. Who can stop at just one?
In the play’s first half, Ms. Proske doesn’t seem to have decided how seriously she should take Webster’s mad, bad world. But in the second half, more enjoyable, she seems to have figured out that just because everyone and everything is terrible doesn’t mean we can’t party down. The play bops from one shockaroo to the next, indicting religion, politics and the patriarchy, when it’s not busy with the blood packs. Sometimes the staging is too much — there are some terrible video sequences and then some better ones — but typically it’s stylish and spry.
Webster’s verse is a blunt, evocative instrument. Though Ms. Proske could have cut some of the more obscure lines, the figurative language catches the ear like a barbed hook. Characters speak of the “soft down of an insatiable bed,” of poison under “gilded pills,” of playing football with severed heads. If there had been psychoanalysts in 17th-century England, they would have had a field day with this stuff.
Certainly the cast has a nice wallow. A couple of the more seasoned actors, like Jenny Bacon, who plays the duke’s not-long-for-this-world duchess; T. Ryder Smith who plays her conniving brother; and Derek Smith who plays both Vittoria’s doomed husband and then her murderer, are able to layer three or four big, distinct emotions onto each line, to meet the play’s extravagances with energy and rigor.
Because if the play is incontrovertibly over-the-top, decadent and then some — I mean, the revenge plot even enlists the pope — it has its own complexities. Are the murders meant to condemn immorality or celebrate it? You tell me. And in the character of Vittoria, whom Ms. Birnbaum embodies with vigor and a high ponytail, he has created, with obvious ambivalence, a singular antiheroine. His Vittoria is both a protofeminist who outargues the men around her (“I scorn to hold my life/At yours, or any man’s entreaty, sir”) and a “strumpet,” a “whore” who meets a stabby end, unmourned.
Nihilism can leave a bitter taste in your mouth, but Webster is such fun to bite into, an invitation to revel in people at their very worst, to taste depravity. If that depravity leaves you feeling a little dirty, isn’t that the point? As the cardinal says, “Dost thou imagine, thou canst slide on blood,/And not be tainted?” Exactly.
The White Devil
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The White Devil
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