Constellation Theatre Company’s staging of Women Beware Women, while described by its 15th century playwright Thomas Middleton as a tragedy, is a wonderfully entertaining farce as boldly adapted by Jesse Berger. It’s a crazy, wild ride of a play where the terrific cast of morally depraved characters and their sly, knowing winks to the audience keep the laughs coming as friends and lovers become haters and co-conspirators, ultimately plotting each others’ demise. Shades of Sweeney Todd—only not as dark.
Middleton’s play is a real soap opera, with all of the salacious plot twists and backstabbing that are essential ingredients of a trashy novel. Set in Florence, Italy and inspired by an Italian story of love and intrigue in the early 1600s, the lovely young Bianca (Caley Millken) is engaged to wed Leantio (Thomas Keegan). He’s a working man and Bianca, while seemingly naïve is also upwardly mobile. At the same time, Isabella (Katy Carkuff) seems to be involved in a flirtation with Hippolito (Jonathan Church) who is—or is he???—her uncle. There are several weavers of thorny webs in this play—and Livia, Isabella’s aunt (the brilliant Sheila Hennessey,) is the sexy, manipulative black widow, lying and smiling and prancing around the stage in her black corset, ostrich feather boas, short flouncy skits and black boots.
The costumes, designed by Kendra Rai, are an eccentric inspiration. It’s a bit of a mash up. For instance, Isabella’s outfits resemble whore couture of the late 1800s—if their skirts were really short.
Which brings us to Guardiano (Keith Irby), the uncle and guardian of Ward (Felipe Cabezas), the rich young heir. Guardiano is seeking a wife for this somewhat clueless and pampered young man, and Irby is great as he saunters around the stage with a grandly self-important air, costumed as the Gentlemen’s Quarterly pimp—complete with colorful shirts (no prints—that would be tacky), hats worn at just the right angle, and a walking stick (which can also be used as a weapon.).
The pacing of the play is tight, and director Allison Arkell Stockman succeeds in drawing the audience in and keeping us interested in a plot that, in lesser hands, could become a tangled mess. She also keeps all the characters in line, and her interpretation of this morality play displays a light touch. We’re kept in on the joke, being tipped off to the fact that some of the cast members are in for a nasty surprise.
Bianca marries Leantio, and while he’s away in another province working, the Duke of Florence (Brian Hemmingsen) sees her and decides to take her for himself. As the Duke, Hemmingsen is perfect as the only character that is consistent with and appreciative of his immorality. He’s a man who is used to getting what he wants, without any apologies.
So he asks Guardiano to lure Bianca to his lair, and as Leantio’s mother (Lisa Lias) and Livia play chess in another room the Duke corners and overpowers Bianca. She relents, bitterly, but soon she realizes that having an affair with the Duke might just serve her own ambitions.
Leantio comes home to find his wife Bianca is cold and dismissive, and she soon decides to cut him loose and marry the Duke. He pushes back by calling her a whore, and as he slides towards skepticism about love Livia decides to seize the moment. “What is the key to whoredom?” she asks, ironically as she sets her sights on Leantio. She offers him “my love, my soul and my riches.” He tosses his wedding ring, while offering this cynical vow: “I will love enough and take enough.”
As Bianca and the Duke plan the big wedding banquet, the specter of judgment lurks about in the guise of the Cardinal (Ashley Ivey). Dressed in red clerical robe, the Cardinal, who also happens to be the Duke’s brother, chastises him with an edge of irony and jealousy. “Time spent in goodness is too tedious” says the Cardinal, and he demands his brother repent for all his sins—adultery being at the top of the list. The Duke falls to his knees, begs for forgiveness, while giving us that sly wink.
The wedding plans continue, while Guardiano connects Isabella with Ward. Isabella still has feelings for Hippolito, who it turns out, isn’t her uncle, and Livia is implicated in the lie that has made Isabella suffer in love. Then Hippolito is outraged that Leantio has wed his sister, and a swordfight begins. Isabella plans revenge on Livia. Bianca, tired of the Cardinal’s haranguing, decides to poison him at the wedding.
One of the tenets of Calvinism is that people are inclined to serve their own interests, and are basically unable to choose the high road, to serve God. And because of the choices they made, as Middleton puts it in Women Beware Women, all the characters are doomed. It is interesting that even the death scenes are played in an over the top way—for laughs, it seems; Middleton’s chuckle at the absurdity of immorality.
Women Beware Women
By Thomas Middleton
Adapted by Jesse Berger
Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman
Reviewed by Carol Chastang
WOMEN BEWARE WOMEN