The Sydney Theater Co. has chosen a distinctly splashy vehicle for its New York debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The play is John Webster’s “The White Devil,” and the liquid in question is stage blood. Gleefully embracing the gory excesses of Webster’s 1612 tragedy, Gale Edwards’ production also piles on a few of its own. The result is like listening to a Sex Pistols record, at top volume, all the way through. Monotony may be a problem, but you certainly won’t fall asleep.
Webster was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a subtle dramatist; Shaw dismissed him as the “Tussaud laureate.” His reputation rests on his two sanguinary tragedies, “The White Devil” and “The Duchess of Malfi,” that feature generous helpings of lust, murder, deception and revenge.
As fodder for entertainment, this laundry list never goes out of style, of course, and Edwards’ production emphasizes their contemporary appeal. “Reservoir Dogs meets the Godfather … ” crows the ad, and much hair gel and black leather are mixed in with the tight bodices and taffeta skirts of Roger Kirk’s boldly colored costumes.
Brachiano, the Italian nobleman whose adulterous lust kickstarts Webster’s dense plot, is played by the swarthily handsome Marcus Graham, who struts through the role with a swagger that would not be amiss on a Milan runway. Nor would his skin-hugging leather pants, carefully sculpted goatee and chiseled chest, for that matter.
Brachiano is aided in his plan to seduce the voluptuous Vittoria Corombona (Angie Milliken) by the lady’s brother Flamineo, a prancing nihilist played by Jeremy Sims with much impish energy and a bleached buzz cut.
In addition to manipulating others’ nefarious impulses to serve his own ends, Flamineo acts as a sort of tour guide through the byzantine byways of Webster’s tale. He steps outside to ruminate, in some of Webster’s most deliciously acidic asides, on the proceedings.
Sims makes the most of these addresses, and handily captures the audience’s uneasy allegiance as he capers and pirouettes from evil act to evil act, like a ringmaster from an Infernal Cirque du Soleil production.
The tale essentially concerns a devious war of attrition between two bunches of not particularly nice people. On the first team are Brachiano, Flamineo and Vittoria, who conspire to dispense with Brachiano’s wife Isabella (Jeanette Cronin) — a sweet flower who cannot live long in Webster’s garden of weeds — and Vittoria’s husband Camillo.
Motivating this group are the lovers’ lust and the greed of Flamineo, who hopes to nab some of Brachiano’s riches by prostituting his sister.
Their nasty behavior arouses the ire of Isabella’s brother, the Duke of Florence (Michael Siberry), and his ally Cardinal Monticelso (John Gaden), whose nephew was the unfortunate Camillo. Both teams employ the aid of a less-than-respectable doctor, whose creative way with poison is one of the more memorable aspects of Webster’s drama.
Edwards’ production takes its cue from the florid flourishes of Webster’s plot, rather than the intricacy of his poetry. There is much groping of the comely Vittoria, as well as ear-splitting sound effects: Murders are accompanied by the familiar sound of an old subway train screeching to a stop. Acrid smoke fills the stage, and Trudy Dalgleish’s lighting is relentlessly stark.
The comedy is also heavily underlined, with each sexual double entendre emphasized with a lewd physical gesture.
It’s a defensible approach — Webster’s characters simply do not have the dimensions of Shakespeare’s, and there’s no pretending they do. When Webster’s bad guys are verbally laying into each other like feral cats, as in the play’s great centerpiece, Vittoria’s trial, they are hypnotically alive.
When they’re giving remorseful death speeches, they’re a bit of a bore. Even the poetry of the good ones seems like Shakespearean leftovers, as when Cornelia, Flamineo’s mother, mourns Flamineo’s murder of her other son (!) in a mad manner distinctly reminiscent of Ophelia.
Actors should be able to supply some of the nuanced humanity the playwright elides, but Edwards’ aggressive direction appears to discourage such subtleties.
Too many of Edwards’ actors are monotonous in their villainy, and their performances are largely pitched too high from the start. Siberry’s Duke of Florence is merely loud; Milliken’s Vittoria defiant and sarcastic; the surly, slouching stalk of Graham’s Brachiano soon becomes an empty pose. Perhaps most effective is the more silken menace of Gaden as the Cardinal; he infuses his line readings with more variety and a molten relish.
In the end, the uninflected performances and the heavy hand of Edwards’ humor robs the play of its most durable aspect, its terror.
The play should be a disturbing descent into the chaos of human iniquity, but here it’s more like a cheeky celebration of it. Edwards’ relentless production leaves you numb — not with horror, alas, but with boredom.