The very walls seem to ooze misogyny in Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women. But strip that tacky wallpaper away and you’ll find a Jacobean-era playwright keenly aware of the plight of women in his day, no matter how harshly he seems to treat them at first glance. Basically sold at market, their only value virginity (for a proper wife) or beauty (for a proper whore), the few roles available to women in the 1600’s were fraught with danger and boredom.
It’s a world Constellation Theatre Company relishes, their epic ensemble style boldly walking the line between grand guignol scenery chewing and magical hyper-surrealism. And in a month where zombies lurch and vampires stalk, this is the perfect theatrical outing for Halloween.
The play’s anti-humanist self-loathing is deeply rooted in a Calvinist world view that may not be so alien to our own. The fear of the inevitable decline of the body, the perversion of purity into decay, love to lust, flesh to disease… what a great time to live! These fears were daily concerns to people who saw their world laid waste by bubonic plague and civil war. Constellation has cleverly chosen to shake up this grotesquerie with a Tim Burton flair. Though it takes a bit for that creepiness to blossom, when it finally does it’s twisted sick fun.
Of course nothing is creepier than a theremin…
It’s when that theremin kicks in (or slithers in) that you know things are not right in this world. Jesse Terrill’s score counterpoints the doomed love between charming young Isabella (Katy Carkuff) and seemingly shy Hippolito (Jonathan Church). At first they seem like your average geeky sweethearts until that theremin unsettles your stomach and it’s revealed that he’s – her uncle. Also struggling against an unfair destiny is doe-eyed Bianca (Caley Milliken), whose elopement with handsome Leantio (Thomas Keegan) grows sour when she realizes she’s traded down her family for a life of solitude and impoverishment. With her mother-in-law for company! Being noticed by the powerful and amoral Duke (Brian Hemmingsen) completes her inevitable fall from grace.
Playing on these love affairs is the other cheerfully amoral character, Livia (Sheila Hennessey), whose machinations spread out like a black widow’s web. Hennessey plays Livia as blithely unconcerned about her amorality, a choice that transforms a role which could be seen as just a Jacobean cougar into something far more deadly, a female Merry Vice. As she says archly, “Sin tastes, at the first fraught, like wormwood water,/ But drunk again, ’tis nectar ever after.” She knows we know it’s true too (lovers of bitter cocktails know exactly what she means!).
Once the beginning business of exposition is over (a fault of the play itself), director Allison Arkell Stockman keeps the doomed characters on their crash course to retribution through dizzying levels of pathos and hysteria. Moments that could seem a cliche – an innocent bride’s seduction by a libertine duke, a cuckholded husband’s seduction by a wealthy older woman – are rightly directed as more complex, imbuing all sides with an eerie power. In a Machiavellian world gone mad, who is the true manipulator?
The ending sequence is an absolute riot as the body count rises and the hyper-acting is unleashed in the best possible way (extra points for most creative use of a crucifix). The production design is perversely fun – the overall concept of a Tim Burton meets the Medicis mash-up is completely committed to by scenic/lighting designer A.J. Guban and costume designer Kendra Rai – and the ensemble cast is wholeheartedly engaged in that world.
You could certainly enjoy this production just for fun, with laughter and shudders, or dig deeper afterwards by investigating into the Jacobean disgust at humanity’s fickle love of power and our willingness to do anything for it. It’s a morality play, after all. Just in time for All Hallow’s Eve.
Constellation Theatre Company’s Women Beware Women runs through November 14 at Source Theatre. Located at 1835 14th Street, NW. Closest Metro Stop: U Street/Cardozo (Green/Yellow lines). For more information call 202-204-7741.