Jacobean drama doesn’t come much more lurid than Thomas Middleton’s revenge tragedy Women Beware Women. Characters die not just by the sword but by flaming gold and poisoned incense. Middleton, one of a host of fascinating playwrights overshadowed by Shakespeare, is better known for his tragedy The Changeling, but that’s probably because Women Beware Women is a much more complex and effects-laden piece—the finale is a bloodbath during a masque. Director Jesse Berger’s adaptation captures the spirit deftly and is marvelously well-spoken by a commanding cast. The story revolves around a Florentine family, two brothers and a sister (the same siblings, incidentally, that inspired playwright John Webster in The White Devil). Fabritio (Everett Quinton) has a daughter, Isabella (Liv Rooth), whom he wants to marry to a rich doofus, the Ward of Guardiano (John Douglas Thompson). But Fabritio’s brother, Hippolito (Al Espinosa), has an incestuous passion for Isabella. The linchpin of the drama is their sister, Livia, played with marvelous relish by Kathryn Meisle. Livia is a bit too sympathetic to Hippolito. (“I am pitiful to thy afflications” she tells him and then adds, in a throwaway line, “But if you question my affections/That will be found my fault.”) She feeds the unsuspecting Isabella a story that she is not of their blood, thus spurring on the affair. At the same time, she persuades the corruptible Isabella to go ahead and marry the Ward for his fortune.
Meanwhile, next door to Livia is a widow (Roberta Maxwell) with a strapping son, Leantio (Jacob Fishel), who has just brought home a bride, Bianca (Jennifer Ikeda), from Venice. Though Leantio asks his mother to keep Bianca hidden while he travels as a merchant, the women are seen at an upper window during a state procession by the Duke of Florence, who forms a passion for the mystery girl. He uses his connection to Livia to meet and rape Bianca. He then persuades Bianca to become his mistress and buys off Leantio with a commission.
Middleton’s world is full of corruption, greed and sexual license, but in Jacobean fashion, the most sinister moments are interlaced with comic ones. The play is not only about buying and selling women as chattel; the idiotic Ward is just as much a victim (and the impressive Alex Morf balances wild slapstick with a notable measure of innocence and sympathy).
Berger’s adaptation eliminates a lot of thick verbiage and makes the story accessible, and David Barber fills the wide St. Clement’s stage with balconies, corridors, and platforms, so it serves as house, court and cathedral. The warrens and rooms are invaluable in the rape scene, as Mother and Livia play chess, while the Duke simultaneously assaults Isabella in a different area. Clint Ramos’s costumes reflect a sense of excess, with sparkling threadwork and avant-garde palettes used in primarily a late 17th-century style—but not exclusively: Leantio wears a cardigan and tie with his frock coat and knee boots.
For the most part, the flaws are minor occasional acting excesses, such as an over-the-top moment of mugging to the audience by Livia at Leantio’s hotness. However, there is one serious exception: Berger, whose director’s note boasts of Middleton’s “unique voice,” has changed the ending as well as the nature of an important character.
Middleton’s original presents the Duke’s brother, the Cardinal, as the voice of reason and morality. He’s the one who speaks last, over the corpse-strewn stage, and represents the continuance of the state—the rare Catholic prelate in plays of the era who is a decent man (unlike, for instance, the Cardinal in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi). A late scene in which the Cardinal tries to set his brother on the path to heaven is spoiled by his transformation in this version into a one-note, slinking hypocrite, played by Jonathan Friedman as a grimace in a chasuble. By pushing the only decent character into the web of evil, Berger has distorted Middleton’s vision and turned him from a cynic into a nihilist.
There is so much that’s good in this production that it would be a shame to miss it, and perhaps people who don’t know Middleton will come away with an eagerness to see more of him, or Webster, or Philip Massinger, or John Fletcher. But if the Red Bull mission, stated on its website, is to explore "the seldom-seen classics of Shakespeare and his contemporaries," then Berger needs to trust the playwrights.