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The White Devil

Theatre Review by Jose SolĂ­s - April 8, 2019

It feels right that the program for The White Devil includes an insert detailing the entire plot. Even though the insert warns readers about the coming spoilers, the synopsis feels like a necessary step to take before indulging in the madness of John Webster's writing. This is the kind of play where the plot has no importance, its role is to be at the service of scenes where dark comedy and tragedy become unlikely dance partners. The production by Red Bull Theater, (at the Lucille Lortel Theater through April 14) epitomizes what the company does best: it reminds us of the great, underproduced plays that should be in rotation as often as the Romeos and Duchesses of Malfi.

The question that might prevent theatre companies from producing plays like The White Devil is probably: well, how do we pull this off? With its enormous cast of characters, baroque language, and use of peculiar weaponry (a poisoned helmet! A murderous picture frame!), plenty of directors would run away from such a challenge. But what helmer Louisa Proske has done with this production is run towards it, embracing every little bit of its madness and studying the way it applies to the present.

Webster's inspiration for The White Devil came from the real-life murder of Vittoria Accoramboni, an Italian noblewoman whose short life — she died at age 28 — was filled with scandal and crimes of passion. In the play, she becomes Vittoria Corombona (Lisa Birnbaum) a sensuous socialite who catches the wandering eye of the Duke of Brachiano (Daniel Oreskes), who must have her at any cost, even if this means having their current spouses murdered. A la The Postman Always Rings Twice, it takes Brachiano no time to eliminate his wife Isabella (Jenny Bacon), and Vittoria's husband Camillo (Derek Smith) from his path, allowing the amoral couple to consummate their love.

But as James M. Cain learned, perhaps even from Webster's work, killing your spouse always comes with a price. Soon after Vittoria finds herself in prison, while Brachiano becomes the object of aversion to newly elected Pope Monticelso (Robert Cuccioli) who happens to be the late Camillo's uncle. As former allies, friends, and servants (Cherie Corinne Rice is delicious as Vittoria's conniving maid Zanche) seek revenge, Vittoria and Brachiano must come to terms with the fact that their happiness was never meant to be.

At the center of The White Devil lies the question of whether we can change our destiny or not. As Brachiano and Vittoria defy the almighty Catholic Church, the defacto moral center of the universe in the 17th century, the answer becomes more complex as unexpected players come into the equation, forcing the characters and audience members to ponder on the way in which our fates interact with those of others. This is cleverly explored through the use of surveillance screens that show us what characters are up to when they're not onstage.

The play has been given a sleek, modern look courtesy of scenic designer Kate Noll and costume designer Beth Goldenberg (the luxurious belted dresses she gives the female characters are Scarface by way of Donatella Versace). Elements which director Proske uses to amplify the operatic tones of the play. Most fascinating of all is the use of video, besides the aforementioned surveillance footage, two murders are seen through projections. Isabella's demise via poisoned portrait is shot like a noir melodrama, the likes of which Joan Crawford excelled at, while Camillo's untimely death is shot almost like a Buster Keaton-style comedy, or Harold Lloyd even, since tragedy lands on him when he least expects it.

Through the use of modern elements, larger than life performances, and a pace that rivals any action series on Netflix, this production of The White Devil feels like the kind of adaptation that would have Webster himself wanting to sit in the front row, smiling in anticipation of getting splashed by the fake blood that so generously pours from the characters' wicked bodies.

The White Devil
Through April 14
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street between Bleecker & Hudson Streets
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix