Matthew Rauch in The Revenger's Tragedy
(Photo © Samantha Moranville)
Matthew Rauch in The Revenger's Tragedy
(Photo © Samantha Moranville)
About 300 years ago, an English playwright (or many writers collaborating) wrote The Revenger's Tragedy, a bloody piece that a critic would later describe as "a product either of sheer barbarism or of some pitiable psychopathic perversion." Indeed, the play's body count would shame Titus Andronicus, and its depiction of incest would make Sigmund Freud's eyebrows rise. Perhaps fearing the Puritanical environment of Jacobean England, the author(s) published the play anonymously after its initial staging, and it remained neglected thereafter. It would not be performed again in London until 1966 and has remained absent from New York City's professional stages -- until now.

The Red Bull Theater is presuming that contemporary audiences will find this old curiosity interesting, relevant, and highly entertaining -- and they're right on all three counts. The Revenger's Tragedy is a fascinating as a historical artifact, especially to anyone who's familiar with other dramas of the period. Aside from its hilarity and shock value, it contains a thoughtful meditation of the nature of justice when one is surrounded by corruption.

The vindictive Vindice (Matthew Rauch) has vowed revenge on the corrupt rulers of Venice, including an adulterous duke (Christopher Oden) and his contemptible sons: The lecherous Lussurioso (Marc Vietor) is a serial rapist whose latest victim is the virtuous Antonio's wife; Spurio (Jason C. Brown), the duke's bastard offspring, plans to get back at him by sleeping with his wife (Claire Lautier). The Duchess's foppish sons, Supervacuo (Ryan Farley) and Ambitioso (Daniel Talbott), share their mother's predilection to keep it all in the family. Finally, there's Flaminio (Russ Salmon), destined to be a pawn in the family's game.

It's easy to view the play as an answer to Hamlet, and director Jesse Berger describes it as such in his program notes. Instead of equivocating about revenge, Vindice plots it and carries it out with little ambivalence. He assumes disguises to finish his plan, and one such masquerade involves a play within a play. But it's of further interest to compare the play to The Merchant of Venice, which also takes place in the famously corrupt Italian city and centers around questions of justice and mercy. In both works, the representative of law and virtue is named Antonio; however, The Revenger's Tragedy refutes The Merchant by showing how the guardians of justice are sometimes the most corrupt of all people.

Despite its dark subject matter, the play is largely a comedy. Berger directs it like a burlesque, with scantily clad players and self-referential humor. The corpses of the departed are tossed around, dressed up, and often thrown into the action of the play in a slapstick style. In trying to shock the audience, Berger sometimes departs from the play as written; for example, in one scene, he has Lord Antonio's wife commit suicide by stabbing herself in an X-rated way. He also adds a sly piece of staging at the end, thereby suggesting -- contrary to the original script -- that Lord Antonio may not have been a paragon of virtue.

Most of the actors in the ensemble cast deliver assured performances. Some effort has been made to suggest the proper period through scenery and costumes, but there are also anachronisms that give the production a postmodern sensibility. For example, the duchess chews gum like a cow to emphasize her vulgarity, and one of her sons sports dreadlocks. The set, designed by Evan O'Brien, seems a cross between an Italian villa and a haunted house.

As he did with his production of Pericles two years ago, Berger shows that he's a director to be reckoned with, using such tactics as avant-garde styles of mime, puppetry, and movement to create populist entertainment from overlooked epics. The Revenger's Tragedy is a show tailor-made for the groundlings, but it's also suitable for the snobs.