The Philadelphia Artists' Collective's (PAC's) first production at the Broad Street Ministry was John Webster's deliciously twisted The Duchess of Malfi, so it's fitting that its last in the church's tall, square, wood-floored room (seemingly made for Elizabethan plays) is Webster's The White Devil.
Director Damon Bonetti sets the bloody revenge tragedy in a 1940s film noir, an ideal choice realized by Katherine Fritz's handsome costume designs. The play's aggressive, independent women sizzle in form-fitting dresses, and its conniving men pose in elegant suits; the actors confidently live their costumes' hard-edged style. Period guns join the arsenal of blades the action requires, and Robert Thorpe and James Lewis's lighting employs noir flourishes like single spotlights and long shadows.
Equally inspired is cellist Stefan Orn Arnarson's live accompaniment. Though one might think noir would call for sultry saxophone, Arnarson’s cello underscoring flows like a quiet stream through discreet assignations, crashes like waves through tense confrontations, and drops like rain to punctuate mounting fear. The cello also boosts moments of simmering lust and, most effectively, eerily accompanies a ghost's visit.
Trust no one
From the opening tone-setting dumbshow, we see shifty characters plotting against one another. Dan Hodge plays Flamineo, a shady operator hoping to profit from pairing his sister Vittoria (Charlotte Northeast) with smooth Duke Brachiano (Jared Reed). However, Vittoria’s husband (Adam Altman) is a minor obstacle. Brachiano has a wife, Isabella (Mary Lee Bednarek), but like so many morally bankrupt characters, he can't imagine anyone else being loyal -- so he lashes out at her when he thinks she cheats.
From there, the double-crosses, infidelities, backroom deals, and murders both sneaky and bold play out in a blistering build reminiscent of Shakespeare, Webster's contemporary. Other players include Brian McCann as murderous Cardinal Monticelso -- who becomes pope -- and John Lopes as Isabella's powerful brother Francisco de Medicis. Altman, Lexie Braverman, David Pica, and J.J. VanName play several roles each, all defined by distinct acting and costumes. Violence constantly threatens to erupt, staged with savage intensity by Michael Cosenza, between spouses and even mother and children.
An underappreciated playwright
Webster didn't write enough scripts that survived to challenge Shakespeare's supremacy, but certainly approaches him for verbal quality. Consider this observation from The White Devil's first scene: "Fortune's a right whore: If she gives aught, she deals it in small parcels, that she may take away all in one swoop." It's a weathervane for the whole play.
Webster also keenly observes society's unfair treatment of women, making Vittoria's actions a vivid rebuttal to sexism. "Condemn you me for that the duke did love me?" she asks at her contrived trial. "So may you blame some fair and crystal river, for that some melancholic distracted man hath drown'd himself in 't." Bednarek, Braverman, VanName, and especially Northeast play dynamic women who challenge male rule in ways that show women are equals in resourcefulness and cunning.
With its entertaining combination of merciless action, aristocratic hypocrisy, unbridled lust, and bloody justice, PAC's splendid production offers a rare opportunity to see The White Devil performed. Don't miss it.