Webster's 'The White Devil' premieres today

by Shialing Kwa | 11/6/97 6:00am

Unless you're a theater scholar, you probably aren't aware that "The White Devil," a play by John Webster, is a major Jacobean revenge tragedy.

Most likely you just associate "The White Devil" with that penetrating facial expression that's plastered on posters all over the campus.

The poster promises "a classic revenge tragedy of lust, murder, power and betrayal." So, what's the story behind that intriguing face?

The plot centers on Vittoria Corombona (the "White Devil"), a married woman who falls for the Duke Brachiano.

In order to ensure that she and Brachiano may be together, Vittoria convinces him to murder their respective spouses; her brother Flamineo is Brachiano's secretary and aids him with his plans.

This conspiracy sets in motion a complicated series of events which includes divorce, poisoning, a trial, a wedding, false identity and attempted suicide.

Though this plot might sound like an episode of "Melrose Place," Webster based his story on actual events and real people who lived in sixteenth century Italy.

He adapted and dramatized history to create this classic example of a Jacobean revenge tragedy. The wave of science fiction in today's television (think "The X-Files") is analogous to the popularity of this form on the stage in England under the reign of James I.

"The White Devil" was first printed almost 400 years ago. However, Drama Department Chair Paul Gaffney directs a leaner, more contemporary version of the play.

He has eliminated 20 percent of the original text (which cuts the running time from over four hours to just under three), has removed about a quarter of the original characters and has placed the remaining ones in ultra-modern, ultra-hip costumes by Margaret Spicer and Jennifer Moeller '98.

The set, designed by Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili, is also far removed from the 17th century.

The scenery does not change during the entire play and this single set has been described as one of the most spectacular that Gaffney has seen in a long time.

It combines modern metallic materials with classical pillars and carved stone. Though the story is set in Rome and Padua, the action could be taking place anywhere, in any time.

Another unusual aspect of the play is the amount of people involved in it. Gaffney directed another production, "Private Lives," which had only five characters. "The White Devil" has 31.

In addition, there are countless others working behind the scenes with sound, lights and costumes.

At least 40 people contributed to the building of the set and the technical aspects of the play.

The logistics of organizing such a large number of people were challenging at times (Dartmouth students tend to have extremely busy schedules), but Gaffney says, "Other than that, I like the big group."

He enjoys seeing the new relationships and intense experiences that develop among the actors, and the large cast also provides the opportunity for a substantial number of first-year students to be involved.

Though mainly seniors are cast in the lead roles (Vanessa Pierce '98 as Vittoria, Matthew Gordon '98 as Brachiano, Carter Jackson '98 as Flamineo), there are many freshmen who play smaller parts.

Gaffney anticipates that the play will be well-received and says, "I'm expecting students to really respond well to this."

There have been plays performed at Dartmouth in the past which have connected better with non-students, but the strong, fast-moving pace of "The White Devil" holds more appeal for college students; they tend to be more adventuresome in their tastes.

In Gaffney's words, students tend to want something that will "engage them and blow them away." He believes that this play fulfills that desire for something bold and aggressive that will "hit them over the head."

"The White Devil" runs today through Saturday, November 6-8 and 13-15, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, November 9 & 16, at 2 p.m. in the Moore Theater.