In the fall of 2010, the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective – the city’s critically-acclaimed purveyor of rarely-performed classics – burst onto the scene at the historic Broad Street Ministry and became the talk of the theater community with its superlative production of John Webster’s 1614 tragedy The Duchess of Malfi. Now concluding its 2016-17 “Jacobean Season,” the PAC comes full circle with its final production at the venue (before moving on to another larger space for upcoming years) and a return to the work of the 17th-century English playwright, with a film-noir-style version of The White Devil of 1612, directed by the company’s Co-Founding Artistic Director Damon Bonetti.
Based on the real-life murder of Italian noblewoman Vittoria Accoramboni in 1585, the play is generally classified as a revenge tragedy, filled with infidelity and ambition, jealousy and anger, violence and retribution, which was rampant in the inextricably inter-related society of church and aristocracy of the era. But Bonetti also sees in it the darkly absurd sardonic humor Webster wrote into the nefarious characters, their ignoble behavior, and heinous acts; the ominous mood, secret motivations, and surprising plot twists that would later come to characterize cinematic crime thrillers of the 1940s; and universal lessons about lust, greed, misogyny, and classism that remain relevant today.
The complicated narrative of nineteen characters (plus a few disguises) seems at first a challenge to follow. But that is soon allayed by the clarity of Bonetti’s direction and editing, by the engaging use of some passages of direct address and audience interaction, and by the vitality of his blocking, energetically moving his ten actors around the main floor and gallery level of the architectural space and through five doorways that surround the performance area. Impassioned performances by the superb cast relay a thorough comprehension of the story, a facility with its archaic poetic language, and a connection to the characters’ distinctive personalities and psychology, which are developed in the first act, then come to a ferocious conclusion – and an increasing body count – in the second.
Award-winning PAC luminaries Charlotte Northeast as the adulterous Vittoria – tried for the murder of her husband and confined to a house of penitent whores – is proud, strong, scornful, and indignant, and Dan Hodge as her devious brother Flamineo convincingly schemes, manipulates, and dissembles his way through scenes of lasciviousness, drunkenness, feigned madness, deception, and death (along with the hilarious sight gag of using a champagne bottle as an ice pack after a fight). They lead a first-rate ensemble that delivers all the heightened emotion and biting satire, with ever-masterful characterizations by company regulars Adam Altman as Vittoria’s doltish cuckolded husband Camillo, John Lopes as the imperious Duke Francisco, and Brian McCann as the hypocritical ecclesiastic Monticelso (all of whom appeared with Northeast, under Hodge’s direction, in The Duchess of Malfi).
They are joined by an impressive roster of PAC newcomers: Jared Reed as Vittoria’s suave but murderous lover Brachiano; Mary Lee Bednarek as his innocent wife Isabella and Vittoria’s loyal servant Zanche; Lexie Braverman as Giovanni, the smart and principled young son of Brachiano and Isabella; David Pica as the banished conspirator Count Lodovico; and JJ Van Name (a well-established expert in classic text coaching and acting) as Cornelia, the mother of Vittoria and Flamineo who is filled with moral outrage at their scandalous conduct and overwhelmed with grief at the death of their brother Marcello (also played by Pica).
Sound Designer, Composer, and Cellist Stefán Örn Arnarson underscores the dramatic tension of the story with his expressive music. Noir-inspired costumes by Katherine Fritz, props by Scott McMaster, and lighting by Robert Thorpe and James Lewis evoke the style of ‘40s films while distinguishing between the characters’ reality, dreams, and ghostly visions, and choreography by Michael Cosenza, including a close-up swordfight and some deadly uses for a Bible and a crucifix, is harrowing and inventive.
The PAC’s presentation of The White Devil isn’t easy. It’s multi-layered, complex, and rich, with satiric insight and socio-political import that spans the centuries. That’s what makes it a classic, and a must-see production.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.
The White Devil plays through Saturday, May 20, 2017, at the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective, performing at Broad Street Ministry – 315 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (267) 521-2210 or purchase them online.