Sunday, January 4, 2009

Women Beware Women

Last night, Catherine and I saw a production by another playwright we had learned about in theater history class but whose work we'd never seen. Red Bull Theater is presenting a beautifully designed (thanks to a one-time, $100,000 grant from the Tony Randall Theatrical Fund) production of Thomas Middleton's 1623 play, Women Beware Women, at St. Clement's Church. While I can't say the performance was entirely successful, it was an interesting evening of theater.

Women is ultimately a revenge play—a very popular form of drama in the Jacobean era— that begins as something akin to a comedy of manners. I can understand why director Jesse Berger would be intrigued by this stylistic mash-up: the play you're watching before the intermission takes a sharp turn in the second half. In essence, all of the avarice, deception and infidelity is punished in the end. It's a nasty play full of nasty people with a ridiculously sensational finale—the sort of play I might really enjoy.

Catherine, as usual, said it best: it's like a really good university production with professional actors. Perhaps if the performances had been more stylized: the actors, by and large, interpreted their roles fairly naturalistically, which worked but did not really pull me across the footlights. There are moments that are exceptional: Kathryn Meisle—subtly but deliciously evil as the deviser of several intrigues—and Geraint Wyn Davies and John Douglas Thompson as the Duke and his advisor, Guardiano. The production made great use of its budget: the set is enormous and marvelously designed, with all sorts of tricks hidden in it that appear throughout; the costumes are easily the most beautiful period fashions I've seen on stage in years (program credit is given to several major regional theaters, including LaJolla Playhouse and the Guthrie). I question, though, the clearly intentional attempts at anacronisms—in the shoes, the occasional pair of sunglasses, a contemporary necktie and sweater vest with a period suit, a skin-tight floor-length skirt beneath a panniers on Livia—these were too few and too confined to the costumes to add up to much.

On our subway ride home, we ran into a friend who asked us if we recommended Women Beware Women. I responded with a flippant, "If you can get house seats." That's a harsher assessment of the production than it really deserves: I may not have been completely engaged throughout the performance, but it isn't at all bad. If you're a big fan of Jacobean theater, I might suggest looking for discounted tickets.

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