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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Chase

Webster's "White Devil" at ART


a man and  a woman in 17th century attire
a scene from John Webster's "The White Devil"

The current American Repertory Theatre production of John Webster’s The White Devil reminds us that William Shakespeare was not the only great writer of tragedy during of the Jacobean era.  The 17th century was a time of brilliant drama and poetry in England, and both Shakespeare and Webster deployed exquisite language as they explored grim and violent themes in tales of murder, moral corruption, and most deliciously of all, revenge. In this play, Webster explores the idea that hypocritical evil often masquerades as virtue and goodness. Long before Josef von Sternberg asserted that The Devil is a Woman, Webster created Vittoria, the "White Devil" of his title, who outwardly appears to be innocent and virtuous, while she is secretly engaged in adultery and murder.


Shakespeare had his own forays into this theme, of course, asserting in Hamlet that, “The devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape,” and in The Merchant of Venice, that "The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose." And let us not forget from Hamlet that “One may smile and smile, and be a villain,” or from in Henry VI, Part Three, “Why I can smile, and murder whiles I smile.”


It is unlikely that any other theater in town would have given director/adapter duo Charlie McGregor and Arianna Lasting such wide latitude to explore this play, best known as the also-ran to Webster’s better known The Duchess of Malfi.  But ART takes chances and invests in new work and new talent.  And so, we are treated to this bold, dark, and shortened but sprawling adaptation of The White Devil


The intrigues of The White Devil are more contained and personal than the grand themes we know from Shakespeare’s tragedies.  Here, we do not have a tragic hero looming as large or dominating the action in the way that Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear do.  Webster populates the world of his play with a roster of competing schemers. 


Vittoria, here called “Victoria,” is a beautiful noblewoman who engages in an adulterous affair with Duke Brachiano. Together, they plot to murder Victoria’s husband Camillo and Brachiano's wife Isabella. This ignites a plot of revenge as Count Lodovico, who has secretly been in love with Isabella, vows to avenge her death, and Isabella's brother Francisco plots to avenge hers. Victoria is put on trial, though there is no hard evidence against her.  Nonetheless, the Cardinal condemns her to imprisonment in a convent for penitent whores. Someone feigns madness; there’s a forged letter in there; an escape; a pursuit; a couple of ghosts; and practically everybody ends up dead. The End.


While some of the alterations McGregor and Lasting have made to the text are obvious, it was challenging for me to identify others while depending upon my distant college memory of the play. I was glad I reviewed the plot before going to the theater, as the exposition here is a muddle. “Victoria’s” complicity in adultery and murder seemed ambiguous.  The changes made to the final scenes of the play depart from Webster substantially.  Indeed, the adapters abandon him entirely, wandering into quotation from the King James Bible assigned to the ghost of Isabella, ending with the Lord’s prayer, and leaving “Victoria” alive. The famed final couplet of the play, “Let guilty men remember their black deeds / Do lean on crutches, made of slender reeds,” originally spoken by the youthful Giovanni, is reassigned to “Victoria,” and spoken earlier.


This adaptation of Webster emphasizes moral ambiguity over the duplicity of evil.  Program notes that are only accessible online emphasize the theme of faith, which was not readily apparent to me, and which I read, only after returning home.


Of course, nothing compares to a good Jacobean revenge play for ever heightening layers of intensity, and this production offers some delicious language and some fine performances by a capable cast.


Heather Casseri gives a standout performance as the Machiavellian Victoria, capturing the character's ruthless ambition and moral corruption, but at the same time introducing an intriguing uncertainty, often making the woman seem genuinely innocent. Johnny Barden is equally impressive as the sleazy and licentious Duke Brachiano, conveying the character's dangerous obsession and eventual downfall.


Andrew Zuccari brings a reckless intensity to the role of Flamineo, Victoria’s devious, conflicted, and possibly incestuous brother.


David Wysocki’s performance as Francisco skillfully emphasizes the contrasts implicit in the character - outwardly urbane and cultured, yet harboring a ruthless, calculating nature that the actor reveals progressively as the play ensues.


Ian Michalski's Monticelso lends an icy menace to the part of the morally bankrupt cardinal, giving a chilling portrait of religious hypocrisy worthy of horror film.


Camilla Maxwell is exceptional as the tragic Isabella, Brachiano's betrayed wife, making a transition from austere dignity to contained anguish and fury.


Stephanie Bax brings pathos and telenovela dynamism to the role of Cornelia, the mother grappling with the moral failings of her children.


Steven Maiseke's Lodovico begins the evening with a kind of manic levity before pivoting into smoldering rage as an agent for retribution in the play. Justin Pope switches entertainingly between the roles of the virtuous Camillo and the vengeful Antonelli. Connor Snodgrass holds their own as the young and innocent Giovanni.


Overall, under the direction of McGregor, assisted by Lasting, this production maintains the bleak, violent tone of Webster's original text, while amplifying the complex moral ambiguities that lie at the heart of the play. The strong ensemble cast brings these flawed, tortured characters to life with conviction. This is a thought-provoking and sometimes gripping staging of this challenging Jacobean tragedy.


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