“Vengeance is mine,” the Lord may insist, but Vindice, star of the savage, sardonic The Revenger’s Tragedy of 1607, has other ideas. When the debauched Duke murders Vindice’s betrothed, our hero swears vengeance on the Duke, his Duchess, and their various offspring. His methods: castration, goring, tongue-ripping, eye-gouging, and the use of a very fetching poisoned skull. Could the Lord do that?
Of disputed authorship (Cyril Tourneur and Thomas Middleton are the most frequently mooted options), the play denotes a most unholy alliance between Senecan tragedy and early modern satire. Pain is ever veined with horror, and suffering shot through with blackest comedy. Set in a decadent court, The Revenger’s Tragedy shows a society so convulsed with dissimulation and pretense, that any trace of self or truth, uncorrupted act or emotion, has long fled. It’s a world of masks without any faces underneath.
Such corruption would be enough for most people, but Jesse Berger, head of Red Bull Theater and the play’s director and adapter, likes his revenge tragedy extra specially dark. He’s appended lines and altered scenes so that, in this version, even the chastest maid turns whore and the gravest counselor lecher. He’s also rendered much of the violence quite funny—severed heads don’t often elicit such laughs. But while the old adage insists that few go broke underestimating audience intelligence, Berger may pander overmuch. Admittedly he’s made an obscure text unfailingly accessible, but he’s also ensured that no phallic reference goes unaccompanied by crotch grab, no excellent pun unwinked. And when the wronged Lucretia buries her shame in suicide, must she really stab herself vaginally?
Anatomical and semiotic quibbles aside, the production is most diverting, thanks not only to its director, but also to its animated cast. Matthew Rauch, sporting a Billy Idol ‘do, makes a most antic Vindice, and Haynes Thigpen impresses as his brother and co-conspirator Hippolito. Michael Urie renders the Duke’s son Lussurioso as the louchest of club kids, and Claire Lautier transforms herself, via platinum wig and plasticine gown, into a very delectable duchess. Indeed, Clint Ramos’s Elizabethan punk costumes are delightful—Vivienne Westwood with lots more ruffs—and partner ably with Erin Kennedy Lunsford’s wig, hair, and make-up confections.
Indeed, as the wigs and ruffs and PVC skirts suggest, Red Bull offers an unashamedly dramatic production—appropriate in a piece so interested in the meta-theatrical. Within the play, Vindice will become director of his own revenge, orchestrating costumes, props, and actors to further his designs. He stages his reprisals with more vision and vigor than many an Off-Broadway production (happily, not this one). A disguised Vindice may assure his mother, ” ‘Tis no shame to be bad, because ’tis common,” but he really needn’t fret.