Here’s a scary thought: maybe “The Revenger’s Tragedy,” the Red Bull Theater’s revival of the Jacobean bloodfest, claws so successfully at the throat because it recalls our own time. This is the story of Vindice, a man who decides he must kill his leader, the Duke, for poisoning his fiancee. Yet Vindice’s pursuit of righteous vengeance ultimately sucks him into the same morass as the royal court. He justifies his increasingly base actions as being noble. Two poles of a moral compass pointing to the same political hypocrisy? Sounds familiar.
And yet this production is unfamiliar, too. Although it’s easy to find contemporary resonance onstage, that’s just one hue in the vicious palette created by director Jesse Berger, who also freely adapts Anonymous’ text. His central aim is creating a universe in which the story’s specific details expand into larger symbols for the lust, greed and ambition that plague any age.
With his stellar cast and designers, Berger accomplishes his mission.
Storytelling comes easily to the ensemble, whose mastery of their Jacobean dialogue makes it possible to follow the endless turns in the plot. Matthew Rauch does particularly impressive work as Vindice, a role that requires him not only to create three disguises (each one designed to trick some member of the court into helping him murder the Duke) but also slip into madness.
Watch Rauch’s eyes at the end of act one when the Duke (Christopher Oden) has finally been killed. He brags about his success to his dead fiancee’s skull, whispering to it like a lover. It’s clear our hero has tumbled into an abyss.
Joining him there is an exhilarating supporting cast. As the Duke’s son, Marc Vietor (who replaces Michael Urie as the show extends its successful run at the Culture Project) brings cool intelligence to both his sexual depravity and his Machiavellian quest for power. Meanwhile, a delightfully viperish Claire Lautier makes her Duchess seem almost rational as she justifies sleeping with her stepson (Jason C. Brown) to punish the Duke for various insults to her honor.
All that sex and violence makes for ripping good drama. Berger excels at injecting prurience into even casual conversations, capitalizing on the exposed flesh of Clint Ramos’ leather-and-lace costumes. No character can resist rubbing another’s torso (or licking it), which charges the room with feral heat.
And when it’s time for the inevitable deaths, they come with squirmy intensity. Blood packets explode, eyeballs get gouged and at least one tongue gets skewered to the floor. True to the depravity that rules the play, these horrors are not hidden.
But they don’t get played straight, either. While the actors tell the play’s literal story — generally maintaining an earnest tone — Berger works with the designers to put them in a world that reads like tragedy and parody combined. Just before the Duke gets killed, for example, Daniel Levy’s whimsical music underscores Vindice’s preparations, as though he were a fairy-tale dwarf getting ready to head for the mines.
Such an unexpected contrast draws laughs, and it makes the Duke’s exploding eyeballs seem a little campier than they might. Yet the man’s torture remains upsetting. The show is full of moments that evoke both giggles and gasps.
The large, plastic mirror that dominates the set’s back wall suggests the purpose of these multiple moods. The mirror reflects everything, but the images are distorted and grotesque, showing us a realm in which murder becomes comedy because the boundaries between right and wrong have been permanently blurred.
And then, in a terrifying revelation late in the play, set designer Evan O’Brient shows us what’s behind the mirror. We suddenly see through the plastic, witnessing a group of hideously masked creatures holding swords. Then, like demons, they lurch onstage and wreak bloody havoc.
The masks eventually are removed to reveal the characters beneath, but for a moment we’ve witnessed a searing symbol of the darkness that gnarls the characters. And that sinister metaphor is big enough to include us, too — whether we like it or not.