Since putting pen to paper some 400 years ago, dramatist John Webster has hardly been the critics’ darling. His two revenge tragedies, The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, are about the only works critics discuss when evaluating his artistic legacy, and they’re so full of gore, skulduggery, murder, and mayhem that George Bernard Shaw dubbed him the theater’s “Tussaud laureate.” In the early part of the 20th century Rupert Brooke described Webster’s dramatic world as “full of the feverish and ghastly turmoil of a nest of maggots,” where life “seems to flow into forms and shapes with an irregular abnormal and horrible volume.” Even T.S. Eliot, who admired Elizabethan drama in general and Webster’s dramaturgical skill in particular, concluded that Webster’s plays “provide an interesting example of a very great literary and dramatic genius directed toward chaos.”

No one can deny that Webster’s revenge tragedies seem calculated to mortify. Both The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi take place in Italian courts rank with corruption, where dukes, cardinals, and courtiers concoct murderous plots against one another every few minutes, where adultery and fornication are de rigueur, and where few acts of kindness go unpunished. It’s a world seemingly without a moral center, a grotesque caricature of a Machiavellian dystopia. For critics of a bygone era, still beholden to the neoclassical edict that art must delight and instruct, Webster’s near pitiless vision must have been insupportable. For a contemporary audience, trained at the movie box office to accept widespread carnage as light entertainment, Webster’s poison-and-dagger free-for-all may seem positively quaint.

Whatever your moral stance, it’s hard to deny Webster’s breathtaking theatrical ingenuity. He’s a master of dramatic economy, launching his tumultuous plays with a bang and rarely letting the action pause over the course of five long acts. And as the National Theatre of Great Britain showed when it brought a thrilling, bare-bones Duchess of Malfi to Chicago 15 years ago, you only need tell Webster’s stories in a clear, straightforward manner to captivate an audience.

Director Jeremy Wechsler, in an ambitious attempt to mount both of Webster’s revenge tragedies in repertory productions, adopts an even more stripped-down approach than the National Theatre, though economic and technical considerations may have dictated the choice–he can’t fit much more than a platform, three folding screens, and a few pieces of furniture into Bailiwick’s tiny, unforgiving studio. But even with a huge stage and a generous budget at his disposal, he’d probably avoid spectacle at all costs. He’s fond of placing his actors front and center and letting them deliver Webster’s poetry in a generally forthright manner; this is that rare verse drama that prizes clarity above hysterics. A few actors swallow every other line in a vain attempt to speak naturalistically, but the rest of the time you’ll hear Webster’s dense, image-rich language in careful detail.

Yet for all the care Wechsler’s cast take in elucidating their text, they have a devil of a time finding Webster’s stories. The plots of these two plays are decidedly convoluted, and keeping the myriad characters’ relationships and allegiances straight requires enormous effort, even when just reading the texts. That effort is frustrated in these productions, in large part because Wechsler and his design team give their audience a nearly neutral visual field: the actors appear on a blank, almost featureless stage, and they’re costumed and lit almost interchangeably, making the critical power dynamics of Webster’s Italian court extremely difficult to discern.

This interchangeability of characters actually serves The White Devil well for the first half of the production. Wechsler has set the play in a nonspecific den of corporate media types, who buzz about in their power suits, read about themselves in tabloids, and perform best when under the watchful eye of a television camera. It’s a world instantly recognizable for its greed, self-interest, and ruthlessness–just as a semimythic 17th-century Italy, with its lascivious papists and fierce politicians, was to Webster’s audience. Everyone here is a smiling marauder, their smartly tailored exteriors masking fetid interiors.

So there’s no straining credibility when corruption arises in all corners. Bracciano decides to seduce the young and beautiful Vittoria, who immediately suggests he kill her husband and his own wife. Unfortunately, their tryst enrages the powerful Francisco, who has no qualms about launching a vicious revenge plot against them. Into this mix is thrown Flamineo, Bracciano’s secretary, a scheming social climber who’ll kill just about anybody if it will better his station.

During the first half of The White Devil Wechsler turns all of these complicated interrelations into a frenzy among murderous equals, making a generalized cutthroat corporate culture drive the action rather than the specific characters and their shifting allegiances. This mob mentality, while at odds with Webster’s vision, nonetheless brings the play vibrantly to life, culminating in a spectacular trial scene at the end of the first act. Vittoria is accused of being a whore and is interrogated by a panel of bureaucratic power brokers, including Francisco and his brother the cardinal. The trial is a sham. The cardinal, who’s supposed to be a judge, turns into a merciless prosecutor, Vittoria mounts a brilliant but irrelevant defense, and the question of her complicity in a double murder is never raised. The entire scene is shot on three video cameras and telecast live on a screen above the stage, a perfect analogy to the procedural pomposity of Webster’s 17th-century kangaroo court.

But from there the production begins to suffer under its own conceit. The indistinguishability of the corporate types makes new plots seem to hatch without motivation. As the body count climbs, it becomes nearly impossible to understand who’s beholden to whom or what’s being revenged. Because no clear loyalties were established in the first act, the carnage seems indiscriminate. After two and a half hours Wechsler’s carefully constructed world degenerates into the kind of chaos Eliot saw.

Wechsler’s The White Devil is set in a particular social and economic milieu, but his The Duchess of Malfi is set nowhere. The stage is every bit as blank, and Rayna Richardson’s wholly neutral costume design–most everyone is dressed for an office cocktail party–drains all specificity from the proceedings. No world is created against which the action plays out, and the dynamics between the characters become even less defined than in The White Devil.

It doesn’t help that the play opens with Antonio and Delio, courtiers to the duchess of Malfi, engaged in purely idle chatter. The topic they discuss–the generalized corruption of the court–should be of great importance to them, yet they exhibit little interest in their own words, setting a nonchalant tone that holds sway over too much of the evening. So when Antonio ends up impregnating the duchess, to the horror of her maniacal brother the duke, the ensuing plots against the lovers’ lives are unconvincing.

The show features some fine performances, notably Paul Noble as the murderous cardinal and Laura Scott Wade as his conscience-free mistress, but overall the cast seems hesitant and noncommittal. A potboiler like this must have a heightened urgency from its opening moments, yet this cast doesn’t seem to have figured out why this story matters.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Johnny Knight.