Review of Red Bull Theater's The White Devil at Lucille Lortel Theatre

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    April 1, 2019
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    First performed in the year 1612, The White Devil (or, The Tragedy of Paolo Giordano Ursini, Duke of Brachiano. With The Life and Death of Vittoria Corombona the famous Venetian Courtesan) by John Webster has some relevant things to say even in our day. A story of intrigue, greed, philandering, abuses of power and revenge (which is relevant in almost any time), I was struck by the power of women that this play highlights, wielded in a world constricted and conscripted by men.

    Seating at the Lucille Lortel Theatre has been reconfigured as a three quarter thrust to bring the players and story closer and out into the audience, moving the plot and ideas from the past into the present.

    The play is kind of like the subtitle above in parenthesis, lots of characters, lots of things to follow and threads to hang on to, but mainly lots of tragedy and death. T.S. Eliot said that Webster "saw the skull beneath the skin" in each person and this, his first play written solo, highlights that trait. Operatic in its scope, Louisa Proske and her background were brought on as director to helm the turbulent storyline and guide the production through its choppy waters by keeping it clear, focused and succinct. She has done that, making the piece relevant and approachable.

    I'm not going to give you the synopsis as it would take up all of my allotted word count and you can read the one in the program to follow all the players, just suffice it to say it's a tangled web of relationships with everyone out for themselves (except Cornelia who is true to her morality, played with motherly conviction by Socorro Santiago).

    Creative double casting lets several of the actors stretch and chameleon to great effect allowing them to relish in their acting chops (Socorro Santiago as Cornelia, Doctor Julio and Matrona; Jenny Bacon as Hortensio, Isabella and the Lawyer; the all-out hilarious and can't-take-your-eyes-off-of-him Derek Smith as Lodovico and Camillo; Edward O'Blenis as Gasparo, a Conjurer and Francisco's Guard; Robert Cuccioli as Monticelso and Physician; Cherie Corinne Rice wonderfully age and gender bouncing as Zanchie and Giovanni).

    The production is produced by Red Bull Theater, founded in 2003, whose goal is to present classical plays that are rarely done but that still have relevance today that can still touch an audience with stories told with a heightened language of a previous time. It’s a courageous endeavor that they are succeeding at and one I recommend you participate in as a theatergoer who relishes the live visceral experience.

    I was happy to be able to see their rendition of The White Devil presented with such surety and strength. The play has not been seen in New York since Frank Langella won an Obie for his role in a production that Circle in the Square put up in 1965.

    This production will not be for everyone though. If you'd rather something safe that entertains and doesn't challenge your audience skills (and I'm not condemning that at all), then this may not be the evening for you. If you like a fast paced twisted plot line of sex, poetry and death all in one night, debauchery, jealously, murder, spurting blood and infidelity no matter the consequences all played to a heightened tempo and drum beat, then this may be right up your alley.

    (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

    "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."
    Alexis Soloski for New York Times