THE WHITE DEVIL by John Webster. Directed by Michael Kahn; sets by Andrew Jackness; costumes by Jane Greenwood; lighting by Dennis Parichy.

With Charles Shaw-Robinson, Harriet Harris, Randle Mell, Lisa Banes, Matthew Kimbrough, Tom Robbins, William McGlinn, Scott Walters, Robert Lovitz, Suzanne Costallos, Janet DeMay, Richard Ooms and L. Hicks.

At the Terrace Theater through Saturday.

When "The White Devil" was first performed at the court of James I in 1608, it evidently met a reaction almost as ghastly as the events it depicted. The play "wanted a full and understanding auditory," its author, John Webster later complained.

The production that opened at the Terrace Theater last night, rounding out the Acting Company's three-week stay here, wanted a full and understanding cast and director.

The attention they ought to have given the text was spent instead on punk rock mannerisms, simulated sex acts and on a set of costumes suitable for a party Andy Warhol might give for the Sex Pistols.

There is rumored to be a lesbian-feminist production of "hamlet" in London just now that is being performed by a group called Hormonal Disorder. If they never make it to Washington, this appalling production of "White Devil" will have to do as a substitute.

Like "Hamlet," Webster's play was an outgrowth of the simple revenge tragedies of Tourneur and Kyd. "The White Devil" was based on real events of about 30 years earlier, surrounding the scandalous career of one Vittoria Corambonda, a "famous Venetian courtesan." Italy spelled debauchery to the English of the time, and Webster gave them a portrait of unrestrained, irrational evil unlike any seen then and scarcely any seen since. u

"We are engaged to mischief, and must on," says Flamineo, Vittoria's brother and pimp who is also the faithful servant of her lover, the Duke of Brachiano. Vittoria spurs Brachiano to murder her husband and his wife, but is herself tried for adultery and sent away to a "house of penitent whores." Then Brachiano abducts her from imprisonment, they marry and the play ends in a vengeful bloodbath orchestratged by Count Lodovco, an ally of Brachiano's dead wife.

All these characters hurtle from decadence to doom with a sense of utter inevitability, never lifting a finger to save themselves. The question is not whether they will do evil, but what evil they will do next.

But within their grisly binds, Webter gives his characters some magnificent speeches. Contemplating Brachiano's death, for instance, his brother-in-law proclaims: "Like the wild Irish, I'll ne'er think thee dead, Till I can play at football with thy head."

As Michael Kahn has staged the play, however, the texture of the verse is lost in the flamboyance of all the gestures. When we have seen fellatio and flagellation before the first line of dialogue after all, what care we for a simple act of murder -- or two or six?

The White Devil" was written in a drifting, nonsequential style that seems strangely modern. People change their minds in mid-soliloquy. They say one thing and do another. At the end, all three main characters reveal a dignity and self-awareness that take us -- and them -- completely by surprise.

"Th'art a noble sister!" declares Flamineo to Vittoria after each has tried and failed to double-cross each other. "I love thee now; if woman do breed man, She ought to teach him manhood."

Vittoria, for her part, laments: "Oh, happy they that never saw the court, Nor ever knew great men but by report."

But long before we reach these intriguing turnabouts, Kahn has lost the audience attention he purchased so dearly, and demonstrated -- as if another such demonstration were needed -- that More continues to be Less.