New York theater director Jay Stern's adaptation of the Jacobean revenge play by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley — which he characterizes as "period-piece pulp fiction" — retains the 17th century language while relocating the original's Spanish setting to the U.S. in what appears to be the early 20th century.
The plot's fulcrum is well-born, superficially virtuous Beatrice-Johanna (Wendy Herlich), who resolves to murder systematically to simplify her tangled affairs of the heart. At the behest of her father (James Prendergast), she's accepted a marriage proposal from Alonzo (Craig Wichman), whom she doesn't love. She wants Alsemero (Chris Brady), and soon after her engagement finds that Alsemero reciprocates her feelings. Knowing that her father's servant, De Flores (Clyde Baldo), lusts for her, Beatrice-Johanna persuades him into kill Alonzo and dispose of the body. De Flores brings her Alonzo's ring — still on his severed finger — as proof the deed was done, but when she tries to pay him off with the expensive jewel he makes it clear that he's not some cheap mercenary. He killed for her, and unless she sleeps with him he'll ruin her reputation, no matter what the cost to himself. Beatrice-Johanna reluctantly acquiesces, while going ahead and getting engaged to Alsemero. Now she has a new problem: How will she conceal the fact that she's not a virgin on her wedding night? So she cooks up a new plan with her maidservant, Diaphanta (Mary Micari): Diaphanta will take her place in the nuptial bed, then slip away under cover of darkness. But the more complex the web of lies becomes, the more tightly it binds Beatrice-Joanna to De Flores, who will not be ignored.
Stern pares away Middleton and Rowley's parallel subplot, which involves treacherous lechery in an insane asylum, to focus on the main story. And their nearly 400-year-old web of manipulation, deceit, betrayal and cold-blooded violence holds up extremely well: The familiar fatal dames and not-too-bright saps of film noir would be right at home. The hand-held camera work and naturalistic lighting add a you-are-there feel to the lurid goings-on, but the acting is distractingly uneven. Baldo is vividly malicious as De Flores, but Herlich falls flat as Beatrice-Johanna — her amoral scheming seems more a matter of plot than character — and Micari is just shrill as Diaphanta. Overall, it's an interesting experiment, but the idea is stronger than the end result. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh