THE WHITE DEVIL - At the Kennendy Center's Terrace Theater through Saturday.
A scary "Devil," this one: first performed in 1608, in the court of King James I (wasn't he the man who invented the Bible?), and seldom done since. Now it's at the Kennedy Center's comfortable little Terrace Theater as a rock opera, or some such.
No wonder that a friend who's loved John Webster's "The White Devil" since meeting it in the course of a course in Jacobean literature flinched at seeing it dressed as a production that "explodes with lust and cruelty when met by a contemporary sensibility," as the program describes it.
The publicity pins this show to "the extravagant cultural images that surround us," such as the youth-oriented [world] of drugs, music and sexual display," which "pulsates with the blare of rock music, the look of bizarre fashion and design, the forbidden erotic appeal of the pornographic imagination and the shocking senselessness of ritual murder." In the hands of this crew, the program says, "Webster's spectacle . . . freely uses the images of 'Punk Rock' and the Manson Murders as vehicles . . Nudity and violence are confronted directly rather than merely implied."
Well, gee. I mean, gee !
In a way, I guess, that's all true -- there is nudity and rock and kinky klothing -- but it turned out to be a good show. A really good show, with simple but imaginative lighting, a charming curtain that looks like a mad Metro car made out of trash-bags, some fine acting (it wouldn't be fair to name some without naming all, and as you'll soon see that would be cyclopedic) and, especially, excellently simple and workable sets, by Andrew Jackness.
What is all comes down to, as a contemporary of Webster's once said, is "The play'sthe thing." And, if you're good at keeping track of things, especially as things, apparently went in 16th-century Italy, it's a good play -- a good old somebody-done-somebody-wrong song, well sung, if in a complicated key.
Vittoria, this nifty lady of Florence, and the duke of Brachiano like each other a lot, but they're both married.
Her husband, Camillo (a nephew of the cardinal of Florence), is in the play only to get killed, and swiftly does so.
His wife, Isabella, has a couple of brothers, one nasty and the other, like Vittoria's husband, doomed to a swift, convenient death. She also, as the conventions of this sort of thing demand, is virtuous. Terminally virtuous.
If you like opera, this is all easy.
Once the spouses are cleared away, the happy couple is -- stuck. Vittoria is accused of murdering her husband and of looking more nifty than the law allows. The accuser and judge is her late husband's uncle, the cardinal. Brachiano, her disco-duke lover, drops in for the trial but accomplishes nothing beyond annoying a lot of people and, apparently, resolving to free her from the bunny-nunnery she's sent to.
There's a lot of byplay, complicated by the fact that some characters reappear in disguise -- the Duke of Florence, brother of Isabella (remember her?) shows up as a rich Moor, for example -- and by the further fact that the size of the cast and the size of the company require some actors to appear in two roles.
Anyway, in the end, Brachiano's young son is in charge, being the only survivor of noble birth or something like that.
Meantime, if I haven't lost count, we've witnessed deaths by (1) poisoning; (2) neckbreaking; (3) stabbing; (4) poisoning, cursing and strangling, in that order; (5) stabbing; (6) stabbing again; and (7) stabbing yet again. There's also some shooting.
Then Brachiano's son, whose father killed his mother only to be killed in turn by his (the kid's) uncle -- if I have this straight -- orders his minions to take the two hired assassins (also ordered up by an uncle of his, I think, but a different one, I'm pretty sure) away to be tortured.
That's all true to the original script, I believe.
What's different is the costumes (fine), sets (really fine) and the rock.
Well, a blast of it ends every scene, as relentlessly as the rhymed couplets of Webster's day, and I found it overloud and grating.
But you can ingnore the rock (bring cotton, -- it's loud) and not miss a thing, since this isn't a rock opera or anything of the sort.
The only song you even need to notice, really, is the one at the end, played for the kid, who looks as if he may be a Medici cardinal himself someday. (by the way, in the meantime his great-uncle has become Pope Paul IV and, as his first act of office, excommunicated Vittoria and Brachiano -- remember them?) The boy's song is the current disco scourge, "I Will Survive," and it drew applause.
Nice, that: A year from now that song of survival will be dead, and 371 years from now this play of death will probably be in revivals again, in contemporary form.