John Webster (1579-1634) was fifteen years younger than Shakespeare, writing for the same audience. (The better known of his works is The Dutchess of Malfi.) His tragedies have embroiled plots filled with ambition, betrayal, and lechery. Your ear needs to tune to the language. It does.
The White Devil (1612) was inspired by a true story of adultery, greed and multiple murders including that of much admired 28 year-old Vittoria Accoramboni. Involved characters such as Vittoria’s brother Flamineo, Paolo Giordano I Orsini Duke of Bracciano (here of Brachiano) Isabella and brother Francisco de Medici, and a cardinal who became pope are lifted from history.
The Set (Kate Knoll) resembles a modern glass house front with double doors and two window views in. It serves as blank canvas for a steady stream of videos from Facetime-like communication to watching what’s going on elsewhere a la George Burns’ magic television. (Splendid Big Brother-like Video Design by Yana Birykova) Beth Goldenberg’s imaginative Costumes are pointedly trash meets the establishment. I could do without cliché hard rock, otherwise Music & Sound Design by Chad Raines work well with approach.
Vittoria, think femme fatale in tawdry, off duty showgirl garb (Lisa Birnbaum never quite at ease with the language) appears to be in love with Bracciano (Daniel Oreskes) who looks like a garmento or thug retired to Miami Beach without gold chains. I say appears to be because we never believe the young woman is anything but fickle and mercenary.
The heroine is married to milquetoast Camillo (Derek Smith, who makes the most of rumpled, comic pathos), the Duke to Isabella (Jenny Bacon, splendidly cloying despite feminist executive wear). Vittoria’s Machiavellian brother, Flamineo (Tommy Schrider, excellent on all fronts in black, of course), works to bring them together for financial gain.
Assassinations number one and two, engineered by Bracciano, are that of the unwanted spouses. Vittoria is found guilty by association. Francisco (T. Ryder Smith, spot-on patrician persona) hires Lodovico, formerly in unrequited love with Isabella (Derek Smith who, if there were scenery, would have chewed it to the texture of chopped kale) and Gasparo (Edward O’Blenis) to exact fatal revenge on Bracciano.
There’s a prison break, a wedding, knifing, impersonation, a poisoned helmet, robbery, pistols, Phantom-like face masks, and a number of suicides. Sexpot servant Zanche (Cherie Corinne Rice) has unmet desires. Cornelia (Socorro Santiago), mother to Vittoria, Flamineo, and Marcello, aide to Francisco (Amara James Aja), warns and rages.
The corrupt Cardinal (Robert Cuccioli – remember him as Jimmy Cagney? Range) becomes Pope. Giovanni, son of Bracciano and Isabella (Cherie Corinne Rice) sends in a SWAT team too late. It’s operatic. Despite lengthy, writhing, often hammy death (oh the speeches!), there’s next to no blood.
I was wary of the cold, bland Set, initial cacophonous sound, extreme complexity of plot, and the play’s 2 ½ hour length. Once it gets moving, however, one is swept up. Relationships and motivations are clear. Most of the acting is very fine.
Direction by Louisa Proske (who has opera experience) is outstanding. Contemporary props, costumes, and video mix with period language and extreme dramatics adding dimension rather than eschewing authenticity. Characters move with visual variety including use of the theater proper. Focus is omnipresent, timing well realized.
Photos Carol Rosegg
Opening: Lisa Birnbaum and Daniel Oreskes
Red Bull Theater presents
The White Devil
Directed by Louisa Proske
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street
Through April 14, 2019