Alumni and Students Collaborate on Noir Theater
A noir interpretation of John Webster’s play “The White Devil” was performed for the first and only time on April 6 in Tishman Auditorium. This production marks the first time Eugene Lang College officially invited alumni to theatrically collaborate with undergrads.
But more exciting was the performance’s attempt to convert film noir to the stage and create a radical genre of theater: theater noir.
The term “film noir,” coined in 1946 by French critic Nino Frank, translates to “black film.” It refers to movies that had their height in the ’40s and ’50s and portray a world of outcast gangsters, disillusioned private eyes and femme fatales.
Since then, the influence of noir has extended out of Hollywood and into fashion design, graphic novels and art, manifesting itself through stark silhouettes, stylized emotion and ambivalent morality.
One place it has not been wildly popular, however, is the theatrical stage. Cecilia Rubino, professor of theater at Lang and artistic director of “The White Devil,” was excited by the prospect of this experiment in creating theater noir.
“At first I said there is no such thing as theater noir,” she said. “When I asked what [The New School Arts Festival Presents Noir’s] definition of noir was, I was told that noir is all things dark and morally ambiguous. I immediately thought: Jacobean tragedy.
In “The White Devil”, director and Lang alum Michael Buffer recreated the stark black-and-white contrast of noir films with dramatic red lighting. The performance’s costumes combined Victorian dresses and S&M corsets, renaissance pants and leather jackets to create an atmosphere that suggested both the mid-century period of noir and the era of “The White Devil” itself.
The cast ranged in age, which allowed for fresh faces to be seen, such as freshman Ally Tufjenknen and Lang junior Ben Miller. The seasoned expertise of Lang seniors Derek Spaldo and Frankie Wagner, and alumni Brittany Walker, Sam Harris and Dan Jacobson helped the cast approach the difficulty of performing a play written in 1612.
“Sometimes I felt that I was giving them perspective but, at other times, I was living through them in the inquisitive undergrad experience,” Brittany Walker said.
“I couldn’t have done this show without asking the questions they asked.”
Rubino also felt that this project was an incredible challenge for both current students and alumni. “The alumni have had the opportunity to work on a really difficult piece of text they might not encounter professionally,” said Rubino.
Despite its success, the challenges of “The White Devil” were clear throughout its performance. The play was hindered by two minor flaws: the abridged text confused the plot and the actors’ projection was not consistent.
But, more importantly, the combined efforts of alumni, faculty and undergrads delivered not only a thrilling performance but also one that attempted to blur the artistic boundaries between film and stage.