KPBS AIRDATE: November 3, 1993
Shakespeare once said revenge is sweet. But there’s no sweetness in “The Revenger’s Tragedy.” That’s no surprise: Partly because of the genre, and in good part due to the presenter.
Revenge tragedy was the name given to often melodramatic Elizabethan plays that dealt with bloody deeds that demanded retribution. Around 1601, Shakespeare penned the ultimate flowering of that form, “Hamlet.” A few years later, Cyril Tourneur wrote “The Revenger’s Tragedy,” for which he is most famous, and which may very likely not have been written by him. In any event, the piece is dark, nasty, cynical, and in the hands of the Sledge-men, violent, sexual, sexist, and sometimes downright disgusting. But it’s also kind of funny. And extremely long.
It’s another field day for director Scott Feldsher, who gets to indulge himself one last time in all the blood, guts, gore and violent sex he can muster, before he leaves us for a year to work with some of the country’s directorial greats, as part of his newly won, prestigious Directors Fellowship from the Theatre Communications Group and National Endowment for the Arts. The man has a dazzling creative mind; I hope it expands in the East, and moves on to other obsessions.
In the meantime, we get treated to a wide variety of brutal acts and couplings: from incestuous mothers and brothers, to inflatable dolls, golden showers, toilet-sitting and, a little twist on bribery money being rammed down someone’s throat: here, it’s inserted rectally. Sadism and savagery know no end.
The play parallels its Shakespearean predecessor, and Feldsher often plays up those parallels with humor. There is, for example, the comic duo that smacks of the ill-fated Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, here shown as Siamese twins wearing one large, pink V-neck sweater. As the aptly named Ambitioso and Supervacuo, Kevin Mann and James Kresser are a kick. Likewise their mother, the monstrous Duchess, played with fierce delight by Christina Courtenay. Her husband, the horrific, hedonistic Duke who is the object of all this revenge, has Bobby Larsen hitting rather appealingly appalling heights. The supporting cast is significantly weaker.
But, thankfully, at the center of it all is that versatile, Sledgehammer mainstay, Bruce McKenzie. He gets to have all the fun: the toilet, the nudity, the shower and the butt-bills. And you can tell he’s relishing every minute of it. He displays more variety than in his agile, antic, unforgettable Hamlet of a few years back. But he had so many more wonderful things to say in that play. Here, as the only character with any semblance of principles, in defending the death of his fiancée nine years ago at the hand of the Duke, he manages to make sure just about everyone is dead at the end of the play. Unfortunately, it takes him over three hours to dispatch his cohorts, and he had none of the ambivalence or indecision of Hamlet.
He does, however, have a marvelous space to move around in. Robert Brill, whose name should be officially changed to Brilliant, has made two stories of the high-ceilinged Saint Cecilia’s — a crumbling, classical kind of upstairs, and a boiler room cum horror chamber downstairs, complete with a working sprinkler system. Don’t forget the blood-spattered walls, the baggied, decapitated head that gets kicked around like a soccer ball, the necrophilia and the Jeffrey Dahmer jokes.
Although the brutal images and mind-boggling stage pictures have unmistakable clarity, both play and production tend toward the opaque and the convoluted. Morally, politically and theatrically, it’s more than a bellyful. And only for the strong of stomach.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.