Human Demolition Derby

Theater Schmeater updates Medici mayhem to the Commie-hunting '50s.

"Lust. Seduction. Everybody Dies." So says the program for John Webster's epic maelstrom The White Devil. Outrageous as those claims may seem, even swarms of truth squads from the McCain and Obama campaigns couldn't disprove them. In this early 17th-century Jacobean melodrama, the question isn't so much whodunit as when. Sooner or later, everyone is up to his or her eyeballs in treachery, either running the risk of murder or conspiring to commit one. With so much backstabbing underway, it makes sense that director Linda Lombardi would untether the story from its historical setting and superimpose the plot onto America's 1950s commie witch hunts. The final surprise? All Webster's carnage is based on the true story of Italy's debauched Medici family.With a body count to rival a Steven Seagal film fest, The White Devil concerns the slow undoing of a pair of homicidal lovers, Bracciano and Vittoria (Chris Macdonald and Annie Jantzer). Some sweethearts exchange flowers or poems, but these two opt to exterminate their mates as a token of mutual attraction. With the aid of Flamineo (Andy Clawson), Vittoria's brother, the murders of inconvenient spouses Isabella and Camillo come off with nary a hitch. But just as it seems the pair are on their way to newly wedded bliss, they're tripped up by their very natures. Suspicion leads to accusation, recrimination to revenge, and that bloodlust brings them full circle to madness and murder once again.Mocking them at every turn are politicians, nobility, and an especially rapacious crew of clergymen who take to killing the way Michael Flatley takes to riverdancing. All these elements converge midway through the first act, when Vittoria faces her accusers in a kangaroo court, staged here to recall the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. Vittoria puts up an indignant front, but since she's actually guilty beyond measure, the scene also recalls Michael Corleone's Senate appearance and denials in The Godfather Part II.From there, Webster follows Florentine history, and the corpses accumulate with all due speed. In this human demolition derby, it's every player's duty to keep an eye over a shoulder waiting for the moment when deception proves their undoing. Director Lombardi keeps the action at full throttle—so much so that there's scarcely any time for the minimalist set pieces to be put in place. In fact, audience members in the first row are warned before the play begins to keep their belongings safely stowed beneath their seats, "because there's a lot of traffic."This breakneck pace, coupled with Webster's 17th-century syntax and the fact that several recently offed actors reappear in other minor roles, can set the viewer's head swimming. And when Webster's oratory takes over, it's as though someone has pulled the emergency brake. Such problems have a way of working themselves out during a show's run, when performers are able to match their dialogue to the responses of an audience. But on opening night, much of the plot was lost due to actors who either weren't projecting or were in such a rush that key story points were lost.Also, setting the play during the McCarthy era works wonderfully in Vittoria's interrogation scene, but then the device fizzles out. The marvelous '50s score, full of doo-wop, cool jazz, and early rock-'n'-roll favorites, only provides context, not insight. Since there's no set to speak of except a few key props here and there, the music and costumes must move beyond mood to suggest time and place. With so much depending on these diffuse elements, a tighter rein would've helped Devil realize its ambitions. There's a feeling that you'd really like this radio station if only the reception were better.Where Lombardi does succeed is in assembling an energetic, watchable cast that jets madly past. Jantzer, Clawson, and Macdonald command the stage with predatory sexuality. As vengeful Francisco, brother of slain Isabella, Ray Tagavilla is so casual in his work that you might think he'd threaten the ensemble mood. He doesn't. His performance, like so much of this production, stings with daring and nerve. If you like your theatrical excursions neat and tidy, give this show a pass. If, however, you believe that theater ought never to be safe, The White Devil is a two-hour revel in audacity.

 
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