Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Dirty deeds done dirt cheap

The other night I went to see a production of The Revenger's Tragedy playing at the Culture Project. I hear it's been extended, so I recommend seeing it. Jacobean drama is already awesome; Jacobean drama done in leather pants, gold thongs, and floor length fur coats is a pretty fantastic Saturday night.

The Revenger's Tragedy is a meta-revenge tragedy that consciously comments on the features of other revenge tragedies and morality plays of the period. The genre of revenge tragedy is already about cramming as much sin and death into one play as possible and makes use of such conventions as: elaborate revenge plots, characters whose names reveal their traits (the revenger is named Vindice; extravagant Lussurioso and saintly Castiza are imports from another play from the period, The Phoenix), characters who take on multiple identities, meta-theatricality and presentations of masques and skits within the play, and a fascination with skulls and severed heads. The author of the play is disputed; Thomas Middleton and Cyril Tourneur are often cited as possibilities. Anyone who saw the play in the early seventeenth century would have recognized elements from Hamlet and Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy. John Webster's The White Devil is my favorite Jacobean play (see Georges de la Tour's painting Magdalen with the Lamp on the cover of the Oxford edition to see the Jacobean fascination with skulls rendered visually). The Revenger's Tragedy takes these features a step further when, say, the multiple identities of characters are paid to kill one another, which requires at the very least exhuming dead bodies of those already killed so that there will be enough bodies to suffer all the carnage. The whole play is meta-theatrical in its delight in transgressing those boundaries that revenge tragedies already transgress.

Consider: Hamlet finds Yorick's skull and soliloquizes.

Vindice dresses his fiancee's skull up as a whore (see it to believe it), spreads a topical poison on the skull's grimace, and forces the man he believes responsible for her death to kiss the poisoned skull. The duke is too drunk to figure it out; Vindice and his partner in crime tease him for using too much tongue when the duke begins to foam at the mouth. Then they stomp on him, make him watch his whore of a wife commit incest with his son from a previous marriage, pluck out his eyeballs, and stab him to death. His body is disinterred for more abuse in the second act.

The director of this production, Jesse Berger, makes the Hamlet-Vindice comparison explicit in his notes; Vindice is what Hamlet would have been if he had acted instead of deliberated. Everything is explicit in this production--there's lots of crotch-grabbing and thrusting--of an already excessive play. The costumes are beautiful takes on punk, 90s club kid, and disco fashion. I half-expected Vindice to be carrying a rattlesnake suitcase under his arm.

Complaining that there's some over-the-top stuff in the production may be beside the point, though I share the Voice reviewer's distaste for a particularly gruesome suicide early in the play. Berger adds in a few lines, notably a paraphrase-in-couplets of Dick Cheney's comments about having to give up some freedoms in an age of terror. That addition in the final lines of the play struck me as obvious. But then the last explicit act of the play occurred--a terrible, terrible surprise but foreseeable given that everyone else is dead, also a Berger innovation--and a sly paraphrase became the least excessive transgression in the performance.