Spit Thy Poison

Founded in 2003, the Red Bull Theater has long been a space space for the Jacobean playwrights who are often ignored by revival companies in favor of their precedessor, Shakespeare.  In recent years, the company has added contemporary works to its roster, including Loot and The Mystery of Irma Vep, but it is nice to see it return to its roots with John Webster’s poison-happy The White Devil, a revenge tragedy that premiered in 1612 at the very theater for which the Red Bull is named.

Loosely based on true events, Webster locates his action in Padua, and the Italian setting would have signalled to contemporary viewers the depravity to follow—for later iterations of this trope, think of The Castle of Otranto or The Mysteries of Udolpho.  While his wife, Isabella (Jenny Bacon), is away, the Duke of Brachiano (Daniel Oreskes) finds himself attracted the poor noblewoman Vittoria Corombona (Lisa Birnbaum).  Since both are married, he decides to murder these impediments with the help of his secretary and Vittoria’s brother, Flamineo (Tommy Schrider).  Webster, who sees instruments of death everywhere, dispatches his characters with an inventiveness that is rarely seen outside a Tom Savini movie.  By the end, the stage—and possibly audience members in the front row—are drenched in blood.

Unfortunately, while the cast is strong, full of booming voices well-suited to the outsized action, the direction is not tight enough, causing the production to lag, a fatal flaw in the high-adrenaline atmosphere of Jacobean revenge tragedy.  Attempts to introduce technology, including video projection and VR helmets, largely fall flat, having no apparent connection to the revival as a whole.  Ultimately, this White Devil is missing the life that would bring the necessary urgency to its many, many deaths.

The White Devil runs through April 14th at the Lucille Lortel Theater.  121 Christopher Street  New York, NY.  2 hours 30 minutes.  One intermission.

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Aaron Botwick

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