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A CurtainUp Review
White Devil

white devil
Tommy Schrider, Daniel Oreskes, T. Ryder Smith (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Mention John Webster to any casual fan of Renaissance drama and they'll likely think of his great play The Duchess of Malfi—partly because it's a tragedy the equal of Shakespeare at his best, and partly because of the number of productions it has received over the years. In contrast, Webster's best-known other tragedy, The White Devil (which preceded The Duchess of Malfi by two years), gets less attention and fewer performances.

Both these plays are revenge tragedies, both with strong female characters at their core. Yet Duchess. . . remains far more popular and I was honored to review a spectacular production by Red Bull Theater Company in 2010 ('thereview). If their newest production of The White Devil demonstrates why it's still not up to its successor, it's not for lack of trying.

The titular White Devil is Vittoria Corombona (Lisa Birnbaum), a beautiful Venetian lady in love with the Duke of Bracciano (Daniel Oreskes) —which would work out well were it not for the unfortunate reality of the lovers' respective spouses. Bracciano's wife, Isabella de Medici (Jenny Bacon), is also the sister of Francisco de Medici (T. Ryder Smith), the Great Duke of Florence, which means any obvious move to remove Isabella from the picture could lead to war. But Flamineo (Tommy Schrider), Bracciano's secretary and Vittoria's brother, is determined to raise himself to a wealthy station by bringing Bracciano and his sister together at all costs, and so begin a series of events which will end in treachery, violence, and bloodshed…a lot of bloodshed.

The Red Bull leans into all of this with gusto. They meld a modern sensibility (techno music, video sequences for the play's usual dumb shows, even a VR sequence for the courtly tournament towards the end of the play) with full respect for the original language and a classically appropriate thrust stage and discovery space.Director Louisa Proske keeps the action moving swiftly, with generally logical tweaks to the script and a relentless focus on the play's bloody center.

As usual for the Red Bull, the actors more than hold their own, particularly Robert Cuccioli's Cardinal Monticelso, one of Webster's typically devious religious figures and Derek Smith's Count Lodovico—a kind of swaggering, Robert Downey Jr.-esque patron saint of the play's themes of immorality and vengeance.

So far I've been pretty positive about the production, and it has a lot going for it. But as the play continues, its cynical amorality and celebration of death and bloodshed begins to wear. Unlike Duchess. . ., there is no figure one can feel good about rooting for, no one to act as a proxy for the audience's own horror and revulsion at most of the play's characters. Indeed, this is the one place where I think Proske's vision falls a little short. The famous scene, where Vittoria is put on trial for murder and ends up being convicted for adultery instead, doesn't quite have the power it needs. Birnbaum is good but not spectacular, and certain directorial decisions keep us from fully understanding the import of Vittoria's position, judged by a roomful of hypocritical men.

Both that trial scene and the play's bloody end thus fail to communicate thematic consistency as much as full-throated enjoyment of violence—an enjoyment which modern audiences might no longer share. But in the end, this is more a problem of the play than a production which generally does right by it.

I've taught Webster for years in revenge tragedy courses, and have always felt The White Devil was partly a dry run for the brilliant Duchess of Malfi. But as this excellent production proves, even an inferior play can create superior engagement, If A Game of Thrones is your kind of series, you'll find a lot to like about the Red Bull Theater Company's White Devil.

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White Devil by John Webster
Directed by Louisa Proske
Cast: Amara James Aja (Marcello), Jenny Bacon (Hortensio, Isabella, Lawyer), Lisa Birnbaum (Vittoria Corombona), Robert Cuccioli (Monticelso, Physician), Edward O’ Blenis (Gasparo, A Conjurer, Francisco’s Guard), Daniel Oreskes (Bracciano), Cherie Corinne Rice (Zanche, Giovanni), Socorro Santiago (Cornelia, Doctor Julio, Matrona), Tommy Schrider (Flamineo), Derek Smith (Lodovico, Camillo), T. Ryder Smith (Francisco)
Scenic Design: Kate Noll
Costume Design: Beth Goldenberg
Lighting Design: Jiyoun Chang
Music & Sound Design: Chad Raines
Video Design: Yana Birykova
Running time: Two hours, thirty minutes with a ten minute intermission
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St., (212) 352-3101
From 3/27/19 to 4/14/19, opening 3/31/19
Tues. – Wed. @ 7:30 p.m., Thurs. – Sat. @ 8 p.m., Sat. @ 2 p.m., Sun. @ 3 p.m.
Reviewed by Dr. Gregory A. Wilson based on March 28th press performance

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White Devil - If A Game of Thrones is your kind of series, you'll find a lot to like about the Red Bull Theater production of John Webster's play Read More