Women Beware Women
nytheatre.com review by Nat Cassidy
December 14, 2008
How's this for an understatement: love is a complicated thing. By turns absurd, giddy, tragic, the reason for living, and a reason to end it all. Perhaps that's what Thomas Middleton had in mind when he wrote his scattershot revenge drama, Women Beware Women (sometime between 1612 and 1624).
The script never seems to be able to decide whether it wants to be taken seriously as a drama, or as a black comedy, or as a typical Jacobean cautionary tale about court excess, or maybe as a treatise on infidelity. Of course, this sort of categorical indecision is not always a bad thing, provided it lands in hands capable enough to use such polyphony to the production's advantage.
So here's another understatement for you: Red Bull Theater is pretty capable. In fact, they are one of the finest purveyors of classical theatre in New York City. For five years now, they have consistently delivered exciting productions of obscure gems from the English Renaissance, always making bold and innovative choices while never turning "accessibility" into a dirty word.
Adapted and directed by Jesse Berger (who hones the piece into 2 hours and 20 minutes that never lag), Red Bull's production of Women Beware Women embraces its inherent idiosyncrasies, and commits fully to the absurdities that pepper the script, particularly towards the end (described as a "ridiculous holocaust" by the editors of The Popular School: A Survey and Bibliography of Recent Studies in English Renaissance Drama). Generally speaking, laughter at the climax of a tragedy would be considered a rather unwelcome response. However, this production understands that this is not necessarily a flaw in the script, but a culmination of what the play has been telling us all along: love makes you do outrageous, messy (and, in this case, deadly) things.
This was the first time I'd ever seen Women Beware Women. Though it is a script I have read before, as I was watching it I was struck by how just modern some of the ideas Middleton brings up can be. The program quotes Gary Taylor as saying, "Women Beware Women is Romeo & Juliet for grown-ups," and the observation is a valid one (though it might be more accurate to say that Women Beware Women is The Spanish Tragedy for lovers). In point of fact, it's one of the few classical scripts that finds a way to deal with post-break-up bitterness—that feeling of watching someone you love be with someone else now, and there being nothing you can do about it—and it treats jealousy not as the melodramatic monster of, say, Othello, but as an entity that one is able to find ways to live and deal with. It is a truly grown-up idea, and it makes for some unique ramifications in the Jacobean canon.
The production is unsurprisingly top-notch. The cast is first rate (and is a true ensemble, which makes it most difficult to single anyone out for praise or criticism), and the design is impeccable. The stage is gorgeously bedecked with three separate levels, all of which are used to great advantage throughout the show. A particularly appropriate detail hangs above the stage. There is a foreboding canopy of clouds from the start of the play, but dead center in the sky is a cloud made out of mattress material. It hovers above the scenes like a baleful god of lust, and is an effectively subtle reminder that, were it not for Bianca's infidelity at the beginning of the action, none of the mess that follows would have happened. And, in a wonderful touch of visual wit, this cloud is broken towards the end by none other than the goddess of marriage.
It's attention to detail like that that sets Red Bull so high in the ranks of off-Broadway companies. Granted, these would just be details were their shows not brought to life with much passion and talent, and thankfully, once again Red Bull Theater has delivered.