Theater review: Constellation Theatre's 'Women Beware Women'

CROWNED IN GORY GLORY: Caley Milliken as Bianca, one of the three female leads in Thomas Middleton's sordid tragedy.
CROWNED IN GORY GLORY: Caley Milliken as Bianca, one of the three female leads in Thomas Middleton's sordid tragedy. (Daniel Schwartz)
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By Celia Wren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The wages of sin is death -- and what a jewel-colored circus death turns out to be in Constellation Theatre Company's seductive staging of the Jacobean revenge drama "Women Beware Women." In the hands of director Allison Arkell Stockman, a competent cast and a knockout design team, Thomas Middleton's play becomes an eye-catching soap opera that turbojets along to a rococo conclusion -- a bloodbath that makes the end of "Hamlet" look like an ice cream social.

A tale of lust, class, treachery and retribution, Middleton's early 17th-century tragedy (the exact date of composition is disputed) follows the ill-starred loves of three women grappling for autonomy in patriarchal Florence. Isabella is a judge's daughter who is hoodwinked into a dalliance with her uncle, Hippolito. Bianca is a young bride lured into an affair with the city's Duke. Livia is the highborn conniver who facilitates both intrigues, and later falls for Bianca's lowborn husband, Leantio. As a powerful cardinal warns that illicit unions lead to hell, the community's equipoise starts to slip, with macabre results at a court masque.

Stockman, who is Constellation's artistic director, has smartly chosen to use a 2008 adaptation of "Women Beware Women" by Jesse Berger, founder of a New York City theater that focuses on Jacobean drama. Berger tinkered with wording for the sake of accessibility, and he tightened considerably, cutting about a third of the original text; he also pruned some of the sanctimony from Middleton's ending. Brisk and taut, the overhauled play is easy to follow, but it retains the pessimistic tone and almost gothic ambiance that one associates with Jacobean tragedy. "When women have their choices, commonly/They do but buy their thralldoms," Isabella muses, in one typically somber line.

Dwelling at the heart of this production's delectably grim story is actress Sheila Hennessey's Livia, a vibrant, arrogant cynic whose vulnerability flares up when she's smitten with Leantio (a compelling Thomas Keegan). The radiant Caley Milliken aces Bianca's transformation from a sunny young wife to the Duke's shaken victim, to a steely-eyed adulteress. As the Duke, Brian Hemmingsen supplies nice moments of menace (particularly the evil smile he flashes as Bianca falls into his clutches). Katy Carkuff is a suitably gullible Isabella; Jonathon Church nails Hippolito's sleazy obsessiveness; and Lisa Lias is enjoyably crotchety as Leantio's mother, who plays a symbolic game of chess with Livia. Ashley Ivey is the Cardinal.

But, as with Constellation's staging of the Hindu epic "The Ramayana" last May, designers A.J. Guban and Kendra Rai are this show's luminaries. The skewed angles of Guban's quasi-constructivist set evoke the pitiless social machinery of Middleton's Florence, while the projected stained glass windows that occasionally appear (Guban also devised the lighting) emphasize the characters' frequent talk of sin. A color scheme dominated by red and black carries through to Rai's luscious steampunk costumes, which balance edginess with melodrama. (Rai has a field day with the masque scene.)

Director Stockman has said that the production draws from the aesthetic of Tim Burton's movies, whose alluring yet sinister atmospherics seemed to suit this play. (The chess imagery in Middleton's work and in Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking-Glass," a source for Burton's "Alice in Wonderland," is another nifty connection, and indeed Hennessey's Livia looks a little like a Red Queen.) Certainly, Jesse Terrill's eerie original music -- incorporating the spooky sounds of a theremin -- is Burton-worthy and helps intensify the show's mood.

Speaking of mood, the play's climactic slaughterfest (in which solids, gases, liquids and something called a caltrop all prove excellent murder weapons) inevitably seems funny today. But the humor doesn't undermine the production's overall effect. Pity, terror, guffaws: As Middleton might have said had he lived a few centuries later, that's entertainment!

Wren is a freelance writer.

Women Beware Women

by Thomas Middleton, adapted by Jesse Berger. Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman; properties design, Samina Vieth; fight direction, Matthew Wilson; choreography, Ashley Ivey. With Lewis Freeman Keith Irby, Felipe Cabezas and David Zimmerman. 2 1/2 hours. Through Nov. 14 at Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW. Call 202-204-7741 or visit

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