Strawdog Theatre Company

The Revenger’s Tragedy has a reputation as a pivotal work in the history of English lit, but the original author seems to have had so little voice of his own that even today scholars argue over whether it was written by Thomas Middleton or Cyril Tourneur. In its latest revival at the Strawdog Theatre, at least, the play seems like nothing more than a subpar Shakespeare pastiche.

The Revenger’s Tragedy follows the tradition of the “revenge tragedy,” a genre marked by gruesome onstage violence prompted by an antihero’s quest for vengeance against those who have wronged him. As the play opens, Vindici promises to avenge the death of his lover Gloriana at the hands of the Duke (Howard Taylor), who poisoned her when she refused to cave in to his licentious desires. Through Vindici’s scheming and their own depravity, the members of the Duke’s court meet many a ghastly death.

The actions of almost all of the characters seem to be governed either by revenge or some other base desire. The three sons of the Duke’s second wife, Ambitioso, SuperVacuo, and Junior Brother, are vain, evil buffoons. Junior Brother is a rapist, and Ambitioso and SuperVacuo are power-thirsty varmints willing to do anything to usurp the privileges of their lusty stepbrother Lussurioso, the Duke’s only legitimate son and heir. Spurio, the Duke’s bastard son, engages in an incestuous affair with the Duke’s wife to punish his father for conceiving him out of wedlock.

The author of The Revenger’s Tragedy presents Vindici as an unconventional purveyor of justice whose actions expose the sins of those around him. Vindici shows the greed and treachery of the women in the play by tricking his own mother, Gratiana, into prostituting her virgin daughter Castiza to Lussurioso. Vindici and his brother Hippolito (Darren Argon Critz) slay the Duke by inviting him to kiss the poisoned lips of the disguised corpse of Vindici’s former lover. Ambitioso and SuperVacuo’s cruelty accidentally causes the death of their beloved Junior Brother when the officer they entrust with the dreadful task of killing Lussurioso winds up killing the wrong guy. In the end a carpet of bloody bodies covers the stage, and even Vindici and Hippolito do not escape the violent cycle of revenge.

The Revenger, Amlin Gray’s adaptation of the play, changes some characters’ names, cuts out some segments, and makes some superfluous dialogue changes, but it does little to change the fact that the play is a nasty, pessimistic piece of work with most of its plot devices stolen from Shakespeare. Vindici puts on mad airs, talks to skulls, and confronts his mother like the brooding Hamlet, but lacks that character’s humanity and intelligence. The vengeful, sarcastic bastard son Spurio has his roots in Edmund the Bastard of King Lear, but has little of Edmund’s brilliant sense of humor. Vindici and Hippolito nailing the Duke’s tongue to the floor recalls the cruelty and horror of Gloucester’s blinding in King Lear, but without the thematic significance. If anything, The Revenger recalls Shakespeare’s lampoon of bad melodrama in his depiction of Pyramus and Thisbe, or that endless Monty Python sketch about the evil Piranha Brothers (“And then ‘e nailed me ‘ead to the floor!”).

Whichever version you choose, this is a difficult play to perform. Play it as drama, and the ridiculously improbable plot machinations undercut the tension. Play it as dark burlesque comedy, and the brooding monologues and grisly violence lose their dramatic weight. Strawdog Theatre’s production, under the direction of Maggie Speer, tries to have it both ways, jumping back and forth between Grand Guignol and straight tragedy, resulting in uneven pacing and erratic performances.

Speer’s direction lacks the inventiveness needed to provide a compelling reason for a revival of the play. Like the 17th-century author whose work she directs, Speer’s directorial trick bag seems borrowed from other sources. The stage business, the theatrical poses, and the costumes play like mediocre Shakespeare, and the few lighting and sound effects are cheesy.

There are 21 actors in Strawdog’s production, and most of them fall into one of two categories. Some have a good ear for the language of the play but offer flat characterizations; others have a good handle on their characters but stumble over the speech. Lawrence Novikoff and Scot Morton seem to enjoy the sound of their own voices so much that their portrayals of Vindici and Spurio, respectively, often seem like empty emoting, while good performances like Jennifer Brown’s Castiza are hampered by nasal midwestern accents. As Ambitioso and SuperVacuo, Paul Engelhardt and Kevin Kenneally ham it up with broad laughter and crocodile tears, but do not succeed at being convincingly comic or convincingly evil. Those who acquit themselves best are Jim Winfrey as a dignified, even-keeled Judge Antonio, John Neisler as the mischievously horny Lussurioso, and Patrice Fletcher as Gratiana. Unfortunately, their performances are not enough to save a questionable production of a questionable play.