February 28, 2016, by Peter Kirwan

Women Beware Women (American Shakespeare Center) @ The Blackfriars, Staunton, VA

After the previous day’s sprint-to-the-finish The Sea Voyage, it was pleasing to see the ASC ensemble shift the pace for Middleton’s Women Beware Women. This perfectly cast production drew on the established relationships and good humour that have characterised all the shows I’ve seen at the Blackfriars, but also lingered on soliloquies and set-pieces to develop individuals. The time spent on characterisation resulted in a truly ensemble production with half a dozen lead roles, building to a complex and satisfying climax that earned its deaths.

As the focal character of the play’s early scenes, Chad Bradford’s Leantio established a wry tone from the start. Charismatic and enthused at his success in both marriage and the concealment of the marriage, his overconfidence at having organised the world to his advantage was in immediate jeopardy. Bradford played expertly with dramatic irony, keeping up his ebullient performance long after the audience had seen Lexie Braverman’s Bianca entrapped, and as Leantio slowly worked out what had happened he became the vengeful insider, standing on the fringes of the Duke’s court and glowering as René Thornton Jr.’s Duke played with his wife’s hand. The overall effect was one of a balloon slowly deflating, until his final duel with Hippolito left him splayed out on the floor, the first casual dismissal of a character.

Leantio’s performance anchored the play’s concern with levels of knowledge, displaying perfectly the overconfidence in limited knowledge that dissipates as previously unknown secrets are revealed. At the other end of the scale, Allison Glenzer’s fabulous Widow, Leantio’s Mother, inhabited her ignorance entirely. Glenzer giggled and cackled when invited to play chess with Livia, enjoying her moment of attention, and sat at the heart of the later court scene entertaining herself quietly while her son’s world fell apart. Following Bianca’s rape, however, their home environment was disrupted and the Widow muttered bitterly, her hilarious asides and sharp changes in accent and tone revealing a depth of resentment that created a tension incomprehensible to the returning Leantio.

The intricacies of the plots of the nobles were successful for their measured set-ups and the contingency of the alliances formed. A close relationship was set up early between Ginna Hoben as a dignified, astute Livia and the immaculate, drawling Patrick Midgley as Guardiano. These two were close enough to communicate much more with gestures and glances than with words, and the fluidity of their manoeuvrings showed them to be a potent force. Compared to the more exaggerated foppery of Aidan O’Reilly’s Fabritio (whose fake laughter at his son’s idiocy was actually moving in its desperation, revealing the precariousness of his own position), the articulation of plans and compromises between Livia and Guardiano was careful and guarded. This also allowed their own unravelling to have more effect: Livia’s scream of rage when left alone after Leantio’s murder was piercing and terrifying; Guardiano’s sinister drawl when explaining to the audience that the arrows in his masque would be poisoned was pantomimically evil.

Against this backdrop of competing forces and overconfidence, Braverman was a strong and self-possessed Bianca. Her relative constraint in the opening scenes led to a combination of restraint and resentment, most notably as the Duke walked under her balcony and shared a lingering look with her; her fear was balanced by her own clear limited mobility. The entrapment itself, staged on the balcony while the other women played chess on the main stage, played with the restricted space and with Thornton Jr.’s height to box Isabella into a corner, pushing her back over the balcony and leaving her with nowhere to run. But as she grew in self-possession, the power relationships shifted. The Widow’s resentment of her presence and Leantio’s inability to perceive her distress led her quickly to abandon hope. Particularly important was the encounter between Leantio and Bianca after they had separated. Bianca reached out to her husband, her suggestion that they were better asunder laced with regret and tears; but on Leantio calling her a whore, she withdrew again. Bianca’s insistence on her right to self-determination came through strongly, and the bitter comedy of her poisoning the Duke instead of the Cardinal implied that it was less her love for her new husband that was at stake here than her despair at having failed to do the thing she intended.

The subplot was pitched at a different level of ridiculousness, but was again effective for nuanced performances and a weary cynicism. Chris Johnston’s Hippolito was sincere in his love for his niece, Lauren Ballard’s Isabella, and tortured by her affection for him (for instance, she coming to sit on his knee when asking what was wrong). The delight he took when Isabella returned his love, under the delusion that they were not in fact related, was affecting, as this relationship, played straight, was a rare moment of mutual investment. The dance sequence at the Duke’s banquet, in which Isabella and Hippolito slow-danced to an acoustic rendition of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Dance me to the end of love’, was highly charged and whooped on by the rest of the company, and their simple, elegant moves were as strong a declaration of public love as anything.

Ballard, however, was hysterical in her weariness at the bumbling efforts of the Ward (Benjamin Reed) to woo her, accompanied by the hilariously deadpan Sordido (John Harrell). Her dance with the Ward, immediately on the heels of her perfect moment with Hippolito, was a train crash of stamping feet, accidental slaps in the face and unwelcome touching, but Isabella bore it all with a grimace and rolled-up eyes, making her body rigid and taking the minimal number of gestures to move the Ward away from her. Later, as the Ward and Sordido appraised Isabella, she again bore it with the scorn it deserved, sharing with the audience her disdain for the men. The sequence culminated in the Ward lying on the floor on his back with his head under her skirts, and scuttling along the floor under her as Sordido walked her around; Isabella’s endurance was priceless, but also aligned her situation with Bianca’s as the two women rallied against their constraint.

The set-up for the final scene resembled nothing so much as a game of Cluedo, with several intended victims and as many different murder plots. The twin joys of the endgame were attempting to work out which character would fall to which trap (Guardiano’s prolonged tumble into the trapdoor was a highlight) and watching the Duke poring over his schedule and struggling to follow the plot. While the humour of the deaths, especially the arrow fired by a fully made-up Cupid, was rightly foregrounded, the distress of the Duke captured something of the hopeless inevitability of the situation. As the enemies successively fell, the sound of hollow laughter grew until the final punch line, as Jonathan Holtzman’s Cardinal turned to the audience and intoned ‘Sin…’. The insufficiency of the word to describe the pointless accidents, symbolic executions and bathetic collapses brought one of the evening’s biggest laughs, implying that there was nothing to be learned here.

This production showed the ASC at what I understand to be its best, finding the humour (both sincere and cynical) in a serious play but allowing the laughs to serve a complex set of relationships and allegiances. With everyone in the play following their own agendas, the unique responsiveness necessary for a company working from cue parts seemed to serve the action, as characters’ self-confidence was punctured and ambitious schemes ruined. A play of mutually assured destruction is rarely this funny, but the bitter laughter fitted it ideally.

Posted in Theatre review