Thursday, March 21, 2019

The White Devil

John Webster's play The White Devil is a bit of a mess. Webster usually collaborated as a playwright, and The White Devil, which premiered at the Red Bull Theatre in 1612, might have been his first solo work, which could explain its rather complicated nature.

The plot, based loosely on events surrounding the historical Italian noblewoman Vittoria Accoramboni, is ridiculously complicated, and filled with the fantastical instruments of death Webster helped to make popular in Jacobean revenge tragedies. According to the play's printed preface, it was a failure when first performed at the open-air Red Bull. When it was revived at the indoor Cockpit Theatre in 1630, however, it was a success.

Webster seems to have been ahead of his time. The play requires the intimacy of a small, indoor theatre to get its full effect, and it looks forward to other bloody revenge tragedies like Thomas Middleton's Women Beware Women, Middleton and William Rowley's The Changeling, and Webster's own The Duchess of Malfi, as well as John Ford's masterpiece 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. A portrait is perfumed with poison, and when a woman kisses it, she is murdered. A death is faked with bullet-less pistols. In the final bloody slaughter, a brother and sister bound to a pillar meet their ends with tragic defiance.

Years ago, when I saw the show performed by the Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre, it was a revelation. In spite of the labyrinthine plot, I was able to follow every twist and turn. When a conjuror had a character put on a charmed nightcap and see visions of murders being committed far away, the audience just went with it. Seeing the dumb shows performed before our very eyes in a dark, intimate space, created an atmosphere charged with electricity. We were being treated to a glimpse of what might have happened in the Cockpit so many years ago. The costumes were a mixture of modern and period, but the feel of the play was pure magic.

I was very excited when I heard that the Red Bull Theater Company was going to be doing The White Devil this year. The company is named for the open-air playhouse where the show was first performed, and Red Bull specializes in the Jacobean aesthetic. Lately, the company has strayed a bit from its mission statement to focus on Jacobean drama and related work, stretching concepts of Jacobean aesthetic to produce such plays as Nikolai Gogol's The Government Inspector. They usually do good work, though, and while I was a bit surprised that Red Bull founder Jesse Berger wouldn't be directing, the director for The White Devil, Louisa Proske, has a long list of opera credits, so I remained hopeful.

While the play is still worth seeing, it didn't quite measure up to the Pittsburgh production of my memory. The piece is done entirely modern, with beautiful contemporary costumes designed by Beth Goldenberg. Virtual Reality goggles replace the charmed nightcap, and a tournament becomes a video game the characters play in celebration. The opening scene takes on the feeling of a video conference call, with a massive projection of a character's face on the set. The video, complete with intentional slips into poor quality for verisimilitude, isn't poorly done, but the production tends to lean on it like a crutch.

There are some good performances, though, chief among them Derek Smith as Lodovico, the banished count who enacts revenge upon Vittoria and her brother Flamineo. Lisa Birnbaum is stunning as Vittoria, the titular White Devil, though that part can be upstaged by the role of her cunning brother Flamineo, played here by Broadway veteran Tommy Schrider. The other part that tends to shine is Monticelso, the powerful cardinal who later becomes pope in the play. Robert Cuccioli plays the churchman with a perfect mixture of gravitas and hypocrisy.

The White Devil isn't the only literary work to tell the story of the ill-fated Vittoria. The French novelist Stendhal and the German Romantic Ludwig Tieck both had their own takes on the 16th-century beauty who came from a family of impoverished nobility, went to Rome to make her fortune, and married the nephew of a cardinal. The powerful Duke of Bracciano fell in love with her, and her husband ended up murdered, probably with the help of Vittoria's own brother.

That history is closely followed by Webster's play, though The White Devil does take some liberties later on for dramatic effect. If you'd like to see it on stage, check out the Red Bull Theater website. You can also put in for $20 rush tickets through TodayTix, though you might have to pay some pretty steep fees.