The Revenger's Tragedy
nytheatre.com review by George Hunka
December 2, 2005
There’s an old saying that revenge is a dish best served cold, but director Jesse Berger and the cast of Red Bull Theater’s production of The Revenger’s Tragedy never heard it. This staging of the Jacobean revenge play, the authorship of which was originally credited to Cyril Tourneur but is now in some question, is a heated, passionate, red-blooded (in just about all the ways you can think of) satire of the darkest realms of human experience: the ways in which revenge, lust, and ambition can drive individuals and entire societies mad. The irony, for us as well as for the original audiences for the play in the early 17th century, is that they’re just so damn fun.
Vindice, a gentleman of Venice, seeks revenge against a debauched Duke for the death of his betrothed several years in the past, and with the help of his brother Hippolito manages to insinuate himself into the good graces of Lussurioso, the Duke’s heir, a shameless libertine who himself has designs on Vindice’s seemingly virtuous mother and sister. The Duke, who’s being cuckolded by his wife with his own bastard son, hires Vindice as a pimp, which gives Vindice and Hippolito the chance to kill the Duke in a Venetian back alley. Maybe “kill” is too soft a word. More accurately, this gives Vindice and Hippolito the chance to serve the Duke a poison which burns his lips off, to stab him through the tongue and impale it in the street, and to tear his eyes from his head with their bare hands.
And that’s just the act one curtain.
Red Bull’s production is a fast-paced, frenetic farce which all but winks at an audience invited to be complicit in the on-stage scheming and bloodlust: a directorial decision that serves the play, the plot and machinations of which are beyond believability, quite well. Berger, who has been developing this text and production in various workshop incarnations for the past several years, infuses the play with a timeless quality, ably abetted by the anachronistic collection of costumes designed by Clint Ramos and a deep, bare, but seemingly timeworn stage design (it’s that stage floor, painted and aged like the stones of a Venetian street) by Evan O’Brient, cut across with a variety of curtains and lit by Peter West, who finds opportunities to evoke the painters of the Renaissance (and occasionally offers an appropriate nod to Vermeer).
The 19-member cast is packed into the small 45 Below space at the Culture Project, and an excellent cast it is; their long familiarity with the rich language of the 17th-century stage and their close work together over a long period of time have knit the performers into a tight, efficient ensemble. To single out any two or three performances would do a disservice to the rest of the company, but Matthew Rauch as the gleeful, increasingly insane Vindice and Marc Vietor as the dissipated libertine Lussurioso set the tone and lead the rest of the cast with an energetic, first-among-equals authority (especially Rauch, who is onstage with an unflagging energy and imagination for 90 percent of the play’s two-hour running time).
This production is only the second from Red Bull Theater, named after one of the leading London theaters of the Jacobean stage and, says a program note, “dedicated to the presentation of vital and imaginative productions of heightened language plays and to the development of new plays written in a similar vein, with a special focus on the Jacobean plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.” The time is right to revive these plays, which, staged by sensitive and imaginative directors like Jesse Berger, may provide the inspiration for contemporary playwrights to rediscover the sensual qualities of the spoken word on the stage.
So far as contemporary relevance goes, this production opened almost simultaneously with the 1,000th execution of a death row inmate since the resumption of the death penalty in 1977—a form of society’s revenge against one of its criminals. As The Revenger’s Tragedy demonstrates, once bloodthirsty revenge sets human actors into motion, we are all driven mad, enthralled by its attraction and destroyed by its violence.