The Reviews: Red Bull’s White Devil Vs TFANA’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar
Oddly enough, or maybe appropriately enough, The White Devil (full original title: The White Devil; or, The Tragedy of Paolo Giordano Ursini, Duke of Brachiano. With The Life and Death of Vittoria Corombona the famous Venetian Curtisan), a tragedy by English playwright John Webster (c.1580–c.1634) first premiered at the old Red Bull Theatre in Clerkenwell, London in 1612. It was considered at the time a “notorious failure“; with Webster, who is likely more well-known for his classic, The Duchess of Malfi, complaining that the play was produced in “the dead of winter before an unreceptive audience“. As the history books also report, it was performed by an acting troupe by the name of the Queen Anne’s Men, who were, by all accounts (including Webster’s), a poor fit for the play’s complexity, sophistication, and satire. With that in mind, the very modern-day Red Bull Theater has wisely chosen to tackle and produce this very play, in tandem with their upcoming production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, boldly marking the red-blooded return to their thematic cornerstone; the Jacobean plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, at the time of their take over of the Lucille Lortel Theatre, now that MCC Theater has made its way uptown to their new digs.
It’s a brave choice, and a daring return especially as reimagined by director Louisa Proske (Barrington Stage’s Gaslight), who has taken the disturbing and diabolical conglomerate of a play and piled it high to overflowing with melodramatic intrigue and deception, upping the ante in violence and operatic appeal. She has amplifying the antics with a wicked Tarrantino touch, while sadly divesting it of all intrinsic subtlety and humanistic emotionality. The play has always been considered grand, dense, and over the top, jumping from passionate temperament to enraged ferocity eagerly and without pause, and Proske has decidedly chosen to dive head first into the dramatics, barely taking a moment to wade in through the moderation of human feeling. Looking at her resume, it’s not surprising that Proske is prolific in this slant, directing opera with aplomb for the stage; Agriippina at the Lincoln Center, and La Bohème at the Pittsburgh Festival Opera. Here at Red Bull, she has grabbed hold of this timely classic with the same bloody vibrato, parceling out the aggressiveness on a clever modernist stage designed with strong appeal by Kate Noll (Rattlestick’s Utility).
Backed by cool sleek glass sliding doors and stark white walls, their White Devil has a captivating visual appeal, presenting with an Ivo Van Hove-esque use of video projection and design by Yana Birÿkova (NYTW’s Dead Are My People), surprisingly harsh lighting by Jiyoun Chang (NYTW’s The Slave Play), and startling music and sound by Chad Raines. From the first scene of in-your-face video banishment, The White Devil feels classic and Shakespearian in its importance, engaging in mischief, plots, and schemes that ricochet outward with a campy pulp fiction high intensity. Webster based his White Devil on the historical news-worthy tale of the rise and fall of Vittoria Accoramboni. His dramatization of all that preceded her demise attempts to elevate the Italian corruption scandal into a high-octane tragedy, turning Webster’s accusatory finger at the political and moral state of England at the time of the play’s writing. The White Devil details how Vittoria, played with abandonment by Lisa Birnbaum (Bedlam’s Sense and Sensibility), a young woman born of a proud but poor Italian family, married to the nephew of Cardinal Motalto, Camillo (Derek Smith), is pushed by her greedy brother, Falmineo (Tommy Schrider) into the arms of the very smitten and despicable Duke of Bracciano (Daniel Oreskes), even though he is currently married to Isabella Medici (Jenny Bacon) of the famous Medici family, brother to Francisco de Medici, Duke of Florence (T. Ryder Smith). Are you following me?
Falling desperately in love with Vittoria, the Duke arranges for Vittoria’s husband to be murdered, in the most strangely devised manner in this particular production’s video re-telling, as well as ordering his own wife to be poisoned in true Hollywood melodramatic horror, watched over by the Duke’s own son, Giovanni (Cherie Corinne Rice). Vittoria stands trial for Camillo’s murder, although I’m not exactly clear why, and the verdict is pushed forward by the Cardinal Monticelso (Robert Cuccioli) on the pretense of Vittoria’s obvious lust and lechery, imprisoning her falsely with other fallen women.
Word reaches Francisco of his sister’s murder, and thirsty for revenge, he hires the formerly banished Lodovico (Derek Smith), an odd Game of Thrones extra, and his aide, Garparo (Edward O’Blenis) to act out his deadly thirst. Monticelso is elected as the new Pope, and amid the confusion (yours, mine, and the inhabitants of Italy, Vittoria escapes prison, marries Bracciano, and together, flee Rome at the same time of their excommunication by Pope Monticelso. At this point in the convolution, Webster flails off from history into high melodrama, with murderous plots, deadly brotherly duels, poisoning and maiming, and a very gruesome comeuppance for one and all in a final bloody rampage worthy of a Tarrantino film. It’s all too much, and sadly, I found my mind wandering off to prettier Italian pastorals, not caring how it all was going to turn out for any of these devils, white or not.
Oddly cast and haphazardly costumed by Beth Goldenberg (TNG’s The Sensuality Party) in 90’s glam and Game of Thrones glory, this Jacobean tragedy, filled to the brim with overdone gesturing and emoting, fails to connect beyond a shock and awe aesthetic. It’s obvious on the faces of some front row audience members that almost got doused in red blood spurting from bad horror movie theatrics that they were taking it in with glee and abandonment. I, on the over hand didn’t find myself responding to the video ghosts trying to bring blood to a boil. While some performances bordered on SNL caricatures rather than finding flesh and blood in their debauchery, the directorial choice of high camp fails to heighten this convoluted drama into anything emotionally engaging, leaving me nonplussed by the high body count of unlikable characters and ready to flee to Shakespeare’s Rome at TFANA.
I wasn’t planning on writing a review of the piece in comparison with the Theatre for a New Audience‘s production of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, but by the grace of the gods, I saw them pretty much back to back, and the way they handle the Jacobean texts is glaringly different and speaks to all that went wrong with Red Bull‘s production (in my humble opinion), and what makes TFANA’s Caesar so compellingly powerful. They both begin with a seriousness and grandness that makes it difficult not to place them side by side in competition. Their lofty speeches and intrinsically detailed dialogue elevate them both onto the classically constructed stage, ordering us to lean in and pay attention to the intricate messaging given forth. But with Caesar, the words and the phrasing become humane, even in their brashness. Shakespeare has a way to pull us in tight, even with this lesser and more disconnected tragedy.
Shana Cooper (Woolly Mammoth’s The Nether), the director of TFANA‘s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar has amassed a solid and tempered cast of professionals, piecing out the treachery with skill and a detailed nuance. They harness the stage with a tribal mob mentality, aggressively choreographed to high wonderment by Erika Chong Shuch (Creative Capital Project’s For You). The masked mob, solidly costumed by Raquel Barreto (Mark Taper Forum’s Water by the Spoonful) celebrate and chant the ascension of Caesar, beautifully embodied by the electric Rocco Sisto (PH’s The Light Years), with a zeal that one can’t help connect to the modern-day dementia that has taken hold of the Republican party. It’s impossible not to feel a bit sick to your stomach by the behavior of these fawning Roman sheep as it is the equal to what is happening in our modern world and country. We can’t help but be swayed to back the noble Brutus, magnificently portrayed by the powerful Brandon J. Dirden (Broadway’s Jitney) echoing out humanity and liberty for Rome. He, and the rebelliously intense Cassius, played by the engagingly handsome Matthew Amedt (Broadway/RTC’s Bernhardt/Hamlet) deliver the passion wrapped in the clarity of Shakespearian speech. The words are fueled with muscularity and a sharp vision, fueling the fire of all others, including the powerfully enticing Stephen Michael Spencer (A.R.T.’s The Winter’s Tale) as warrior stud Caska, to stand up and fight back.
The dynamics explode forth, on the overly fussy set by Sibyl Wickersheimer (Geffen Playhouse’s Barbeque) backed by dynamic lighting by Christopher Akerlind (Fiasco/RTC’s Merrily We Roll Along) and sound by Paul James Prendergast (Broadway’s All the Way). It’s strong and forceful, dynamically encapsulating violence in a way that heightens the emotional effect without debasing itself in visual gore. This invention is perfectly embodied in the stamping death of a poet named Cinna. Actor Galen Molk (Millbrook’s An Act of God) and the cast of Julius Caesar forces us to feel each blood soaked kick enmeshed within the powerful intelligent work of Shuch and fight director U. Jonathan Toppo (Public/Broadway’s Sweat). Planted in a tribal and fierce flow, personified by Octavius, gorgeously embodied by the stunning Benjamin Bonenfant (Hudson Valley Shakespeare’s Richard II) and the rest of this invigorated cast of eighteen, the choreography of war stamps and thrusts its way into the text.
The women of Shakespeare’s Caesar are equally strong; Merritt Janson (TFANA’s Measure for Measure) as Portia and Tiffany Rachelle Stewart (Broadway’s Curious Incident…) as Calphurnia, dig in as much as they can, but sadly their tale is pushed quickly to the side, discarded for the greater tale of political power and Democracy gone wrong. At the center of the conflict, Mark Antony, portrayed by Jordan Barbour (Drama League’s Marry Me a Little) with force but strangely out of sync, incites the unrest by offering the crown thrice to “vile a thing as Caesar” and the rest, as they say, is well trodden history. The play, while not being one of my favorites of Shakespeare’s, is said to reflect the general anxiety of Elizabethan England over the succession of Queen Elizabeth. She was considered, at the time, a strong ruler, but was elderly and had refused to name a successor. The country was worried that a civil war similar to that of Rome might break out after her death. Caesar, in his arrogance, compares himself to the Northern Star, but his character is basically the axial of the play, around whom the entire conflicting demands of honor, patriotism, and friendship turn. Cooper makes a grand statement with the battleground stomping, and the sweaty tremor heightens the ferocity of the play to a level that Red Bull‘s White Devil can only the Pope can pray for. This is how it’s done, even with these faulty classics; bring power and bloody guts forward with a vision and an understanding of word and volume, and leave the shock fest for the movies.