I had a chance to see the UNCG production of “The Revenger’s Tragedy” last night at the Taylor theater. It’s been a while since I went to the theater but I sure don’t remember it being quite like this.
Departing from a strictly “traditional” theatrical production, “The Revenger’s Tragedy” begins with nearly all of the participants of a wedding celebration being murdered with machine guns and stage lights a blazing. Then, with the action having died down, a screen is lowered on to mid stage and the play’s title is projected. This is followed by brief shots of each of the main characters on the screen. First impressions hint at this adaptation using more innovative techniques and moving away from the traditional interpretation of the play.
The use of the projection screens throughout the play to introduce scenes or create the set, added to its overall look and feel and helped to detract from the industrial look of the rafters, pipes and metal cages which adorned the stage at all times. One of the more notable scenes was that of the park with a silhouette of trees projected against the back of the stage. At first the stage was alive with shadows of rustling trees but as the characters walked in front of the projector their shadows were cast against the back wall and the concept of the park was lost. These screens were also used to introduce scenes and act as a narrator for action in a clever and imaginative way. However, there are times when they were over used and detract from the action of the play. This occurred when the Duke (Max Waszak) and Vi (Emma Reaves) played Pac-Man which was projected mid stage. Although their dialogue is important to the play, the audience’s focus is on the Pac-Man game and not the main dialogue.
Though much attention was given to the use of a projection screen, the stage lights were for the most part underutilized. The scenes in Club de Lux used different colored lights to portray a night club scene and went further by using dancing extras. The major separation between background extras and foreground characters was not evident, leaving the audience lost and confused as to whom to focus on. This separation of action could easily have been achieved through the use of lighting and drawing the main dialogue to front stage. Instead we saw colored lights roving automatically across the stage and sometimes shining directly into the audience, temporarily blinding everyone.
At the time this play was written by Thomas Middleton, of course, directors did not have access to such contemporary effects as neon lighting and projection screens. This production is clearly a modern adaptation and writers Jim Wren and Joe Sturgeon deviated from the original significantly. As advertised, this adapted Jacobean revenge tragedy takes its inspiration from Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill.” As with the movie, “The Revenger’s Tragedy” begins with a murdered wedding congregation and one sole survivor, Vi, who then single-handedly seeks out and murders each of the people who had a part in her lover’s death. The ending of the play, in fact, also takes a page directly out of “Kill Bill” as Cassie (Rebecca Bruder) fires the ellipsis to the phrase “The End”, projected on the screen behind her using a hand gun. Wren and Sturgeon carried on the Tarantino legacy with excessive use of violence and profanity, although the consistency of these two elements is sometimes lacking. The result is a more satirical version of “Kill Bill” than any real homage to the female action thrillers, as suggested in the marketing materials.
The adaptation to change the main romantic relationship from a heterosexual one, as was the original, to a homosexual one between Vi and Gloria (Rebecca Nerz) lacked any clear, strong reason. Perhaps the lesbian relationship could have worked if only the actual relationship that inspired Vi to plot against The Duke and his family was developed more deeply. What was missing from this tragedy was an exhibition of the type of love that would drive a lover to carry out such violent and gruesome actions as were displayed in this play. While the ghost of Gloria is a character in the play, she is not fully utilized to tell the tale of the love of these two women. There is a feeling of disconnection and displacement of the character. The longing and despair at love lost is completely absent. What we are left with is almost empty violence.
With the lights, projector and music, this production tried too much to be like a movie and in the process forgot that it was supposed to be engaging the audience. Far too many sound effects through the sound system were either off queue or missed entirely. Entire fight scenes appeared odd as punches were heard before or after the physical punch would land. Guns were fired with the gunshot heard moments later – or at times not heard at all. Acting by most of the characters seemed too dramatic, with the exception of perhaps the incarcerated son of the Duke. The Duke was the most noticeable in facing the audience when he spoke his lines, a technique which is common in theater although his was the only character to consistently perform it. Other times actors would have their backs toward the audience, something which was repeated scene after scene by numerous characters, disconnecting the audience and isolating them.
However, there were some positive elements in the play. The use of metaphor was evident in costuming. Often red clothing was used alongside red lighting, creating a sense of foreboding and foreshadowing of the violence to come. In a Tarantino-like fashion, red was also used to signify death as Gloria appeared with flowing red sequins down her dress and blood flowing in the bathhouse after the Duke is murdered. These elements sometimes created humor amongst the audience in there overtly grandiose fashion. The blood coupled with gothic style costuming made the play seem like a cruel satire of the fairytale Cinderella. With Vi as the heroine and the two evil stepsisters Amber (Ali Bayless) and Susie (Rachel Loebs) along with their siblings tormenting Vi at every step of the way, elements of classic fairytales emerge. The dark twist to this fairytale, however, is found in the mass death at the end.
Overall the production was an interesting change to the more typical approach to theater. The use of projection screens, music and costuming was innovative and exciting. However, the focus on these elements of theater was at the expense of more traditional aspects – acting, plot and lighting among the most important. The audience was at times overwhelmed by the special effects and fanfare of the production and missed out any real character depth or plot development. It would seem that sometimes simplicity is the most important criterion to success.