- The Revenger's Tragedy
"New York loves Revenge!" That's what my email inbox said in early 2006 when The Red Bull Theatre's adaptation of The Revenger's Tragedy at The Culture Project was held over for three extra weeks. Since setting up shop in 2002, Red Bull has staged Jacobean plays in the basement theatre of Bleeker Street's Culture Project in Manhattan's East Village. The company takes its name from the Red Bull that was built in 1605, housed John Heywood's Queen's Servants, and hosted performances through the Interregnum. The group's first New York production was Pericles in 2003, but the heart of Red Bull's project is non-Shakespearean drama: alongside [End Page 100] its full productions Red Bull also hosts a series of "Revelation Readings" of underperformed plays. The list for last season included A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, Women Beware Women, a "gender experiment" on Macbeth, A Mad World, My Masters, The Witch of Edmonton, The Roman Actor, and The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Next year's program will include Edward II, The Rover, and The Changeling.
The Revenger's Tragedy, once assigned to Cyril Tourneur but now usually held to be the work of Thomas Middleton, was performed as a bloody romp that combined suggestive topicality—plenty of corruption, deception, and political hypocrisy—with accessible staging and strong performances. Especially since Hamlet was playing at the Classic Stage Company twenty blocks north at the same time, comparisons to Shakespeare were obvious. What was most striking about The Revenger's Tragedy was how much it charmed audiences used to more familiar early modern fare. The New York Times review by Neil Genzlinger (12 December 2005) called the play "like Shakespeare on speed," and a theatre blog wittily termed it "Hamlet without the whining." While productions of Hamlet often carry a whiff of piety, Red Bull's Revenger's Tragedy oscillated between violent intensity and near-parody. Vindice's opening monologue, in which he sentimentally addressed the skull of his dead mistress, set the stage for a spoof of Hamlet. But the production also exploited Middleton's dark wordplay to shift between parody and melodrama. Lines like Junior's plea to the court after he has raped Lord Antonio's wife, "My fault being sport, let me but die in jest," turned up the emotional volume and kept parody in check. The production made clear its commitment to a high emotional pitch by adding a new scene that staged the suicide of Antonio's Lady in gory explicitness.
The contrasting styles of the two most compelling performers dramatized the play's split personality. Matthew Rauch presented a rational, sympathetic, accessible Vindice, and Marc Vietor a charismatic, eroticized, iconic Lussurioso. The distinction between Rauch's playing-it-straight empathy and all-black costume, and Vietor's stylized display and faux-glam rock costume highlighted the play's fundamental ambivalences—about drama, about justice, about revenge. These two performers generated some arresting juxtapositions as the action shuttled between Vindice's conspiracy and Lussurioso's decadence. For example, the scene in which Vindice offers his services to Lussurioso as a bawd (1.3) emphasized the contrast between the revengers' virtuously-motivated deception and the decadent nobleman's sleepy-eyed fascination with "strange lust." Upon the arrival of the scene's punch-line, in which Lussurioso hires [End Page 101]
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