Angie Milliken and Marcus Grahamin The White Devil(Photo: Tracey Schramm)
Angie Milliken and Marcus Graham
in The White Devil
(Photo: Tracey Schramm)
A naked, middle-aged man, hairy and distraught, runs out from between upstage panels and throws himself down, crying "Banished!" at the audience. It's the first action in Gale Edwards' production of John Webster's The White Devil at BAM. Depending on your attitude towards these things, it's either a clever attention-getter or a cheap one.

If you're inclined to take the latter view, read no further; Edwards' take on Webster isn't for you. She's a director who derives great glee from pushing the limits of the term "over the top." Just last year, she got away with her excesses in the Royal Shakespeare Company's go at Schiller's Don Carlos and was lambasted for them in the Broadway revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber's and Tim Rice's Jesus Christ Superstar. Edwards is so O.T.T., she single-handedly creates the need for a new phrase to describe the condition. "Way over the top" doesn't begin to do it.

But Edwards doesn't have to defend her approach to The White Devil, since no group of playwrights call for extreme measures so much as the Jacobeans. Serving as rococo practitioners of Shakespeare's baroque dramaturgy, they seemed to have been in a competition to up the ante on each other when it came to stuffing narrative with blood-letting, betrayal, cupidity, misanthropy, misogyny, lasciviousness, incest, venality, and whatever other dark deed they could think up to lard into their iambic pentameter. More particularly, Webster seems to have had little faith in humanity's inclination towards doing good. Yes, the title figure in The Duchess of Malfi remains virtuous while others, including her own kin, plot to do her in. But no such character glides through the skullduggery of The White Devil. It's difficult to say why, as not much is known about Webster himself. Ambiguous accounts indicate that he may have been such-and-so who is mentioned in this-or-that, but to date no historian has been definitive on him; not even on his dates, 15?? to 16??

Whoever and whatever he was, something in Webster's nature and/or nurture apparently brought him to the conviction that the world is a place where everyone suffers from an infected spirit. Whereas, in Shakespeare, corruption is purged at the final speeches and conciliators point the way towards a brighter future, Webster posits that there is no cure for society's ills; they are self-perpetuating. To put it in contemporary terms, he evidently believed that an ineradicable virus had invaded all computers.

The way it works in The White Devil is that the lovers Vittoria Corombona, married to the feckless Camillo, and Branchiano, married to Isabella, decide the only way they can be together is by getting rid of their respective spouses. To be more exact, Vittoria plants the idea with Branchiano by telling him about a dream she's had wherein Isabella and Camillo threaten her. (Incidentally, the two lovers are based on a real-life pair who would have been as well known to 17th-century Englishmen as Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco are to today's theatergoers.)

What the murderous couple don't reckon on when Branchiano employs a doctor deft at the art of extermination is the determination of Isabella's brother, the Duke of Florence, to get revenge. (The hired medical hit-man daubs poison on a larger-than-life-sized photograph of Branchiano; Isabella succumbs seconds after kissing it.) The machinations set in motion eventually involve everyone in the Machiavellian band of royal-court miscreants--right down to Flamineo, Vittoria's brother and Branchiano's secretary, and right up to Monticelso, a cardinal so steeped in underhanded tactics that he's eventually elected Pope. (In the early 1600's, when Webster penned--quilled?--his venomous drama, Rome remained a popular target of disrespect.)

Such an air of lawlessness pervades The White Devil that no one thinks to seek justice from a higher order. Instead, they instinctively take measures into their own hands. At these fatal games, the ladies are the equals of the, ahem, gentlemen--even if their weapons aren't the same. When Vittoria is arraigned for whoredom before a tribunal of pompous officials, she cries: "O woman's poor revenge, which dwells but in the tongue!" Maybe, but it's a sharp and conniving tongue. (During the sole intermission in the five-act play, one wag was heard to say, "The women look like they'd like to grab the swords from the men and use them." Much truth in that remark.)

Webster's insistence on everyone's being involved in the calumny yields a witty and riveting play that constantly pits the bad against the worse. (Branchiano's young son, Giovanni, is even implicated in an ominous curtain speech.) And then the worse are pitted against the worst. Just who qualifies as the absolute worst is up for grabs, since Webster's title, while suggesting there's a single white devil, more accurately seems to imply it's the white devil in all of us that's being pointed up--and at.

The work is rich in the language of ambiguity and treachery. Take something as simple as the adjective "diversivolent," which one of those haughty lawyers invokes. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it means "desiring strife or differences." The example of usage the OED cites is, not surprisingly, Webster and this play. It's a good bet that the word he reached for to characterize these dubious endeavors can be found nowhere else in literature. As another illustration of the play's look at malevolence, take the speech Monticelso makes while wielding his black book, which lists the names of local felons and which includes pages on panderers, rogues, politic bankrupts, and young men who take up commodities. (Hmm...that certainly has a contemporary ring.) Take the wronged and wronging Duke of Florence, who says he's so used to being flattered that he's begun to flatter himself. Take Flamineo, who's something of an Osric (Hamlet) or an Oswald (King Lear) on happy pills and who delivers many of the play's most articulate and lengthy outbursts about manipulation and exploitation.

Take Count Ludovic, who has been stripped of his citizenship and returns with two confederates to this diseased Rome for bloody retribution. Take Cornelia, mother to Vittoria and Flamineo, who gets to spew crazed comments concerning rue and rosemary and indelible spots, and thereby evokes Ophelia and Lady Macbeth. (Webster would, of course, have seen Shakespeare's hits and may have been irresistibly tempted to elaborate on his predecessor's themes and tenets--just as, these days, playwrights like Harold Pinter and David Mamet may be moved to file variations on Samuel Beckett.)

The White Devil is so rich in the nuances of evil that it remains compelling while, at the same time, challenging directors and actors to find their way through its tortuously interconnected plots. Not many are eager to take up the cudgel, however, and so the tragedy is rarely mounted. That alone is reason enough to seize whatever opportunity arises, but Edwards and her company make this White Devil more than an obligation. The director has gone for a clean, spare, moodily lit (by Trudy Dalgleish) setting in which the actors' histrionics stand out starkly. Edwards and set designer Brian Thomson leave the stage bare but for those upstage panels and a moving walkway that are infrequently supplemented by tables and chairs and the odd metal fence or wall. (Edwards maintains that, aside from cutting for length and substituting obsolete words for more accessible ones, she's changed nothing in the script. At least one speech, however, has been excised for reasons of political correctness; in it is discussed a need for more Jews in society, so that rancor aimed at others can be deflected.)

The White Devil cast, many of them dressed by Roger Kirk in fabulous silks that billow in the breezes flowing from all the villainy, have been encouraged to chew the scenery. These well-trained Sydney Theatre Company players have flossed for the occasion. In particular, Marcus Graham as Branchiano has a smile like an ad for razor blades and moves around the stage with the grace of a machete. Angie Milliken, her bust pushed up and flattened sensuously, makes Vittoria lusty and brainy, a blithe executive of execution. Jeremy Sims savors Flamineo as if the fellow's lines are a banquet and he a glutton, and John Gaden portrays Monticelso, the cardinal-become-Pope, as the embodiment of absolute power corrupting absolutely.

Though Edwards' energy flags somewhat as Webster's indictment of humankind rushes towards its conclusion and more bodies litter the stage than populate the average cemetery, she never loses the courage of her convictions. She believes Webster's play is an elephantine piece about elephantine complications in human affairs, and she hurls her conviction at the audience with a maestro's gusto. That is to say, she's appropriately devilish.