Women Beware Women
Adapted and Directed by Jesse Berger
Red Bull Theater
Theater at St. Clement’s, New York
January 18th 2009
Thomas Middleton’s 1623 tragedy Women Beware Women begins, teasingly, with a scene of domestic felicity. Young Leontio returns home to Florence after a lengthy absence and is greeted joyously by his mother with the words “thy sight was never yet more precious to me.” He brings along a new wife, Bianca, whom he describes, at considerable length, as a treasure, a blessing, “the most unvaluedst purchase / That youth of man had ever knowledge of.” The mother is less sure of this new addition to the family; her hesitation, her doubts about her new daughter-in-law, whet our appetite for the undoing of virtue and family bonds that follows. The scene also points up a fatal divide between the generations.
This is not a frequently produced play, and Red Bull makes an excellent case for its stageworthiness. This company, now in its fifth year, devotes itself to the lesser-known dramas of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Earlier productions include Marlowe’s Edward II, Shakespeare’s Pericles, and The Revenger’s Tragedy (attributed alternately to Cyril Tourneur and Thomas Middleton). Their take on Middleton embraces the odd range in tone found in this work: it may be a tragedy, but one with exceptionally strong comic and satiric elements. When a play begins with a marriage (a clandestine one at that), we know trouble is to follow. Jennifer Ikeda’s effervescent Bianca enters, all smiles in a brilliant yellow dress, and Jacob Fishel’s naïve Leontio beams at his good fortune. Meanwhile, another marriage is in the offing: the judge Fabritio (Everett Quinton) plans to marry off his lovely daughter Isabella to a youthful dolt with money. To this end he schemes with the young man’s greedy guardian (John Douglas Thompson, suitably oily). There is something comfortingly familiar about these traditional comic scenarios, and the performances in key instances reinforce this familiarity. Quinton’s judge is a toddling, puffed-up little man whose assertions of authority are often funny rather than threatening; the dolt (so insignificant he does without a name and is known only as “the Ward”) is a played by Alex Morf with a slapstick quality: he and his sidekick Sordido (Jeff Biehl) provide most of the physical comedy.
Given these setups, we expect trouble and disorder to follow. But it is in the nature of the trouble that Middleton’s play goes over to the dark side. It is one thing for Isabella’s father to want to sell her off to a totally unsuitable husband (we’ve seen that lots of times); quite another for her uncle Hippolito to make her a target of his affections; quite another again for Hippolito’s sister Livia—the girl’s own aunt—to facilitate the incestuous affair within her own household. The respectable widow Livia also contrives the downfall of Bianca, who has caught the eye of the Duke of Florence. In a key scene, Livia and Leontio’s mother play at chess (you can guess who wins) while the Duke corners Bianca in an upstairs room. Here the threat is not simply physical (although that threat is present) but verbal: the Duke succeeds with Bianca in large measure due to his rhetoric, which urges her to “take hold of glory.” Geraint Wyn Davies plays the Duke as utterly sincere when he insists that “She who is fortunate in a Duke’s favour / Lights on a tree that bears all women’s wishes: / If your own mother saw you pluck fruit there, / She would commend your wit . . . .” The argument for vice is cloaked in assertions of honor and goodness.
This disconnect between language and action is central to the work. The characters give gorgeous speeches justifying—in the language of truth, justice, honor, and love—ever more loathsome actions. Note that the Duke’s lines from his seduction of Bianca evoke both Eve’s crime and a mother’s blessing. The link between sin and corruption of natural ties is deftly made, even if the characters themselves don’t quite see it. And the disconnect only intensifies. After discovering that Livia has taken as her paramour the lowly and deserted Leontio, Hippolito launches into a fit of offended honor and kills the young man. This incestuous seducer proves capable of towering familial outrage, as he pledges himself to restoring his sister’s honor: “I love her good so dearly, that no brother / Shall venture farther for a sister’s glory / Than I for her preferment.” Al Espinosa’s Hippolito, like the Duke, is intensely serious; he seems oblivious to the irony of his words and to the way in which the language of love and honor merges with the language of material gain (an effect present from the beginning—note the way Leontio describes his wife—and one that builds throughout).
A word on two of the actors. In a uniformly strong cast, Kathyrn Meisle’s Livia deserves particular mention. This character links the plotlines and serves as the drama’s lynchpin. In a world of corrupt male authority figures (judge, father, uncle, guardian, ruler), Livia stands out as a figure of hidden female authority. She must convey the meaning of the play’s title, as she corrupts and betrays those women she should protect: Isabella, her niece; and Bianca, the daughter-in-law of one to whom she declares herself a “near neighbor” and a “kind friend.” Without her the schemes of the men could not proceed so smoothly. Meisle’s Livia at first conveys womanly good sense as she argues for her niece’s rights in marriage. Her “good sense” continues to be in evidence, as she serves the interest of those she loves (her brother) and obeys (her ruler). It is her corruption that signals the depth of the rot in Florence, and Meisle rightly drives that point home by playing her not as a villainess, exactly, but rather as a character who passionately and enthusiastically argues for the rightness of her actions, even when they are so obviously wrong.
Jonathan Fried’s Cardinal (the Duke’s brother) also stands out as a figure who mirrors Livia. The Cardinal seems to be marginal in the text, lurking at the edges, sternly observing his brother’s vices, and arguing the need for his redemption. He embodies—if not very powerfully—proper male authority and moral authority. An important moment in Act IV shows him appearing to “convert” his brother to virtue (this proves to be far from the case). While seemingly incapable of effective action, his character emphasizes the theme of conversion: in a work full of conversions to sin, he pleads for true conversions that never happen. Jesse Berger’s adaptation is here most obvious. In most other scenes the adapting involves cuts (understandable, although they at times weaken the rhetorical effect); in the case of the Cardinal, the nature of the character changes. I won’t say how, exactly, but the Cardinal’s remarkable resemblance to Dick Cheney is a big clue. The revision of this figure is most effective in the final scene, darkening even further the tone of the play, but the shift in characterization might have been more subtle.
As Women Beware Women approaches its conclusion, each “wronged” person, convinced of the justice of his or her cause, progresses toward the ultimate crime of murder. Livia, furious at the death of her lover, plots with the guardian of the Ward (who is miffed at linking his charge with an incenstuous adulterer) to kill Hippolito. Isabella, enraged at being tricked into incest and exposed as an adulterer, contrives to kill her aunt. Bianca, suspicious of the Cardinal, schemes to poison him. All plans are put into effect at, of all things, a wedding masque for Bianca and the Duke, in which Livia herself will take the starring role as Juno, goddess of marriage and protector of wives and mothers. This is a controversial scene—some critics have seen in it a falling-off in quality, a lapse into almost ludicrous violence after the carefully constructed rhetoric of the previous four acts. But, properly staged, it presents an awful moment of realization for the characters of the logical endpoint to their corruption, of virtue, of family bonds, and of language. An entertainment meant to be an allegory of love and power is inverted and becomes one of self-annihilation. It’s a difficult scene to stage and pace properly, involving both high and low elements (literally, since the “goddess” Livia is suspended on wires and another character—not the intended one, of course—drops through the trap). Berger’s staging of the scene works neatly, and, once the deaths commence, the audience breathlessly awaits the next disaster. The effect has the schemes converging to create a kind Rube Goldberg-like, maybe Providential, mechanism of justice—the play, especially in this production, allows for doubt that the hand of God is at work here.
I advise you to watch for Red Bull’s next production: John Webster’s spectacle of family annihilation, The Duchess of Malfi.