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Women Beware Women

Acting the Fine Line of Absurdity

By Thomas Middleton
Constellation Theatre Company, Washington, D.C.
Monday, November 8, 2010
Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman

It seems that in a Middleton tragedy, the stage inevitably will be littered with dead bodies at the end. The entertainment is seeing how the massacres come to be.

In Women Beware Women, Livia kills Isabella with a cascade of coins even as Isabella has already set in motion Livia’s death by poisoned incense. Guardiano plunges through a trap door to a spikey death he intended for Hippolito, but Hippolito dies from a poisoned arrow prepared by Livia and shot by Cupid (bear with me here). The Duke of Florence is accidentally poisoned by his new bride, Bianca, who intended the drink for the duke’s brother, the Cardinal and, though she finishes off the poison herself, before she dies she kills the Cardinal with his cross. And Fabritio dies of a heart attack upon the death of his daughter, Isabella. Leontio, Bianca’s first husband, was already dead at the hands of Hippolito in a duel, which set in action the finale fatals. Only Cupid remained standing at the end with a wicked grin; too bad the simpleton Ward, who, as far as we know, is still alive off stage, hadn’t shown up, looked around and said, “Huh."

I’m not being flippant here as this production seemed to have trouble determining if it was a black comedy or an absurdist fable. Middleton’s ending is definitely black, and while it seems absurd today, it wasn’t necessarily so for Jacobean audiences.

Middleton’s device is a pageant on love featuring Hymen and Cupid played before the Duke and Bianca with the play’s other characters playing parts in the pageant. As the characters died, the confounded Duke (Brian Hemmingsen ) became increasingly angry that the pageant wasn’t keeping to its script. That played for laughs, and got plenty. Hippolito (Jonathan Church), meanwhile, spoke a zillion lines in a demonstrative death scene that would make Bottom proud; that, however, was apparently not played for laughs (my bad, as I, alone, laughed while the rest of the audience comprising, on this Monday night, people from other D.C. theaters remained silent).

The challenge for a 21st century director is deciding whether to play Middleton straight or go over the top with his plot. Director Allison Arkell Stockman tried to do both. In costume (the women looked like Old West dance hall girls, the men like they stepped out of Harlem’s Golden Age), in set (black platforms and Seussian windows), in the melodramatic music, and even in makeup (heavy eye shadow for the men), Stockman pushed Middleton’s script (adapted by Jesse Berger) fully into the realm of the absurd. But the acting was mostly straight, except for the arrogantly ignorant Ward (Felipe Cabezas) and his servant Sordido, manically played by one of our ASC favorites, David Zimmerman; he also played Cupid. Brian Hemmingsen as the Duke seemed to be in on Middleton’s joke, shifting from a formal public persona to a dastardly rapist and then to audience confidante, smoothly seducing us with his villainous plans. Even in such an absurdist environment, unwinking acting can work well, as proven by the performances of Sheila Hennessey’s Livia and Thomas Keegan’s Leantio. But when straight acting wavers into overwrought expression and gesture, as happened with Jonathan Church’s Hippolito and Katy Carkuff’s Isabella, the results are less certain.

This was our first experience with this theater and this play. As to the former, we certainly plan to see more of Constellation’s work. As to the latter, my appreciation of Middleton is growing. He certainly reveled in sex and violence (he puts to lie any notion that “classical theater” is any less R-rated than current Hollywood fare) but still drew interesting characters to kill off in many fell swoops at the end.

Eric Minton
November 20, 2010

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