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The Dartmouth
February 25, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Murder, lust and revenge make 'The White Devil' sizzle

Massive metallic double doors dominate the stage. The combination of metal with stone already suggests the modern/classic duality of "The White Devil." When two men and a woman clad in tight black leather and wild eye makeup burst on stage and begin to pour forth 17th century language, this duality is confirmed. Director Paul Gaffney has molded John Webster's 1612 Jacobean revenge tragedy to suit a modern-day audience, illustrating that the theme of revenge is not limited to one time period.

The play centers on the adulterous relationship between Duke Brachiano and Vittoria Corombona. Matthew Gordon '98 plays Brachiano as an amoral charmer with some of the best one-liners in the play. Vanessa Pierce '98 plays Vittoria, the "White Devil." Though Pierce wears slitted, cleavage-baring gowns, her sultry, headstrong Vittoria is no mere sex object; this is an intelligent, assertive woman. Flamineo, secretary to Brachiano and brother to Vittoria, aids the two in their plots. Carter Jackson '98 struts across the stage, ranting and raving as the borderline psychotic Flamineo. He is a man frustrated by his poverty and hopes that he will gain wealth and a higher social status if Brachiano and Vittoria marry.

Thus, their respective spouses, Camillo and Isabella, must somehow be taken out of the picture. Camillo (Arvid Nelson '99) is an idiotic, arrogant cuckold who is reminiscent of some smarmy used-car salesman; no one in the audience feels a great loss when he is murdered in a vaulting accident organized by Flamineo. However, Carolyn Zern '97 elicits sympathy from the audience with her convincing portrayal of Isabella as the loving but neglected wife. Brachiano divorces her and then has her murdered. Timothy Holm '00 is hilarious as Dr. Julio, a mad scientist type who poisons a portrait of Brachiano which Isabella kisses. A conjurer (Shaunda Miles '99) uses dumb-shows to demonstrate to Brachiano how Camillo and Isabella will be killed. These slow-motion murder scenes, set to eerie, hypnotic music, are carried out amazingly well, considering the fact that slow-mo action tends to lend itself to general cheesiness.

These murders create even more problems for Brachiano and Vittoria. Camillo was nephew to Cardinal Monticelso and Isabella was sister to Duke Francisco of Florence, so the two lovers now have powerful enemies in Church and State. Francisco and Monticelso (Jeffrey Wadlow '98, Spencer Doyle '98) put Vittoria on trial for the murder of Camillo, acting as both her accusers and her judges. This trial is one of the highlights of the play, fully illustrating the strength of Vittoria's character as she mocks Francisco and Monticelso and defends herself against their accusations. Doyle's portrayal of the Cardinal, who later becomes Pope, is terrific-- his expressions are ruthlessly cold and his lines are delivered with just the right amount of malice. Though Francisco and Monticelso cannot make a strong case against Vittoria, they publicly condemn her as a whore by throwing her in a home for reformed prostitutes.

Unbelievably enough, the story gets even more exciting and more complex with smaller subplots. For example, Vittoria's Moorish servant Zanche (Shazia Ahmed '01) has romantic affections for Flamineo, a relationship which angers Flamineo's brother Marcello (Robert Courtney '00). The brothers have a quarrel which results in Flamineo killing Marcello. The death of her son drives mom Cornelia insane; Nicole Wiley '98 gives an excellent representation as this madwoman. Instead of a manic, over-the-top portrayal of a loon, Wiley's woman-turned-child characterization of Cornelia is believable and well-done.

I will not go into all the final details of the plot; there is only so much room for this article! There is more murder--I am not sure if I was in a particularly morbid audience the night I saw the play, but there was laughter during the scene in which Brachiano is strangled to death. I do admit, though, that Gordon's dying croaks were rather amusing. There is more romantic intrigues as when Zanche falls for Francisco when he disguises himself as the Moor Mulinassar, comically depicted by Jeffrey Wadlow '98. And, of course, there is more deceit. The play ends with the one good guy, Brachiano and Isabella's son Giovanni (Chad Goodridge '01), capturing all of the bad guys.

Overall, "The White Devil" is an extremely entertaining play. The fight scenes and bawdy double entendres appeal to a 1990s sensibility. Some negative aspects are its length and its confusing plot. Though Gaffney has cut the play from its original four plus hours down to just under three, it still seems just a bit too long. Gaffney also eliminated some extraneous characters and attempted to make the plot as lean as possible, but the story remains confusing. Members in the audience kept referring back to their programs throughout the play in an effort to keep up with the plot. The color-coded costumes designed by Margaret Spicer and Jennifer Moeller '98, in addition to being ultra-hip and visually exciting, are helpful in keeping track of who's who. The thugs are completely clothed in black; Flamineo and Marcello, the two brothers, wear similar black suits but one wears a purple shirt and handkerchief while the other wears blue. The set and lighting, designed by Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili and Daniel Kotlowitz, respectively, are also visually impressive.

This play is immensely theatrical; if you are someone who demands a realistic story with characters who are not all completely amoral, "The White Devil" is not for you. But for others, it is a must-see play.