— Production photo
WOMEN BEWARE WOMEN
Jacobean drama is a gas.
Much of Shakespeare’s best work was written during the reign of James I (hence—for some reason—Jacobean), 1603-1625, following the death of Elizabeth, but by and large it was a period of decadence for post-Elizabethan English tragedy. The theatrical specialty of the period was Italianate revenge, and you can get a sense of how things go, Jacobean-style, if you imagine Hamlet and Iago in the same play, along with incest, rape, existential atheism, and wicked Catholic clerics, with the diabolical cleverness of the evil plots and the number of the killings ratcheted up significantly.
Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women, first performed sometime in the 16-teens, is a classic of the genre. Characters act almost immediately on their passions or appetites. Morality is just a word. Cynicism is the name of the game. Diabolical plots are hatched for the hell of it. Hamlet’s bloody ending has four corpses littering the stage. Women Beware Women’s has seven.
While this is great fun, it’s not easy to pull off. All the difficulties of Shakespearean language are in play, along with the fact that these other writers were not as good as Shakespeare, so their plots tend to be excessively baroque and their characters sometimes poorly developed. There’s a reason why Bard on the Beach, anxious to inject some variety into their Shakespearean repertoire, haven’t yet attempted a Jacobean tragedy. And why they’re so rarely done anywhere on Canadian stages.
Ensemble Theatre is an ad hoc summer company composed of a mixed group of actors who mostly work with the semi-professional United Players. Taking on a play like this is enormously ambitious, and director Tariq Leslie and his cast have mixed success with it.
The baroque plot is essentially manipulated by Livia (the excellent Alison Raine), a widowed lady of the Florentine court, who through boredom or bad karma or simply the desire to control others’ lives convinces her niece Isabella (Stephanie Elgersma) that it’s okay for her to have sex with her uncle, Hippolito (Joel Garner), even while marrying a rich, dumb jock called the Ward (Mark Manning). Livia also helps lure newlywed Bianca (Jordan Kerbs) into the palace of the Duke (Graham Bullen), who rapes her.
Bianca apparently enjoys it, leaving her mother-in-law (Rebecca Walters) and dumping her husband Cleantio (Simon Mizera) to be with the Duke, whose brother, the Cardinal (Daryl Hutchings), will try to break up their immoral coupling—with dire results. Meanwhile, Livia decides Cleantio is for her. That won’t end well, either.
Besides Livia, the play’s other manipulator is Guardiano (Kazz Leskard), uncle to the Ward, a classic Jacobean Machiavel. He sets up the revenge plots that take place during a masque at the end—a serial array of poisonings and unlikely stabbings that had the audience giggling the night I saw the show.
Working in modern dress (costumes by Vanessa Driveness) on John Bessette’s clean, open set, the company does a pretty good job with the challenging material. But it all feels a little too naturalistically low-key. There needs to be a larger-than-life, stylized, almost operatic intensity to make this stuff sizzle.
Even without the sizzle, it’s worth tasting this kind of play you may have to wait another few years to see in Vancouver again.
Women Beware Women runs in rep with Mark Twain’s The Diaries of Adam and Eve and Aaron Sorkin’s The Farnsworth Invention—an audacious, if not bizarre, combination of plays—until August 10.