The eponymous heroine of the early-17th-century play “The Maid’s Tragedy” could teach Ophelia a thing or two about rejection. Like Hamlet’s ex, Aspatia of Rhodes sees her relationship with a nobleman fall through in the aftermath of sinister court machinations. But does Aspatia lose her wits and go around distractedly handing out pansies and fennel? No. She dresses as a man and forces her erstwhile fiance into a duel.
Admittedly, her aim in provoking the duel is to die rather than kill. Still, she’s choosing her own destiny in a gutsy way. Nor is Aspatia the only audacious female character in “The Maid’s Tragedy,” a potboiler about sin, loyalty and revenge by Shakespeare’s contemporaries Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. Now on view in an accessible if not wholly polished production by Brave Spirits Theatre, performing in the Sanctuary at Convergence in Alexandria, “The Maid’s Tragedy” also introduces us to Evadne, a determined noblewoman who does not shrink from conspiracy, extramarital sex and murder.
The play chronicles the fallout after the King of Rhodes (Ian Blackwell Rogers) terminates the engagement between Aspatia (Victoria Reinsel) and Amintor (James T. Majewski), in order to marry the latter to Evadne (Charlene V. Smith). After Amintor learns that the marriage is a ruse, aimed at concealing Evadne’s affair with the King, new and old court resentments start to spiral toward vengeance.
Director Angela Kay Pirko’s production benefits from the talents of Reinsel and Smith, the co-founders of Brave Spirits, a five-year-old company that focuses on works from Shakespeare’s era. Reinsel brings out the anguish of Aspatia; there’s real pathos in a moment that reveals the disconsolate noblewoman leaning against her father (Gary DuBreuil) as he tries to comfort her. And Smith’s brash but vulnerable Evadne is compelling, particularly in scenes that show her squaring off against men.
In another commendable turn, John Stange displays the passion and cunning of Melantius, Evadne’s brother. Some of the show’s other performers show less confidence and poise. The production’s acoustics are also problematic: The lofty reaches of the Sanctuary sometimes swallow up the actors’ words.
That’s a shame, because the space is handsome. The actors perform on, and in front of, an imposing raised stage, beneath a soaring ceiling. The audience sits in pews, which have been decked out with flowers and flickering candlelike lights. Director Pirko works some other flavorful touches into the production. An early scene features dancers in glittery masks. And the actors frequently break into song, sometimes bolstered by drumming. (Eric McMorris designed the set, and E-hui Woo the lighting. Zach Roberts is music director.)
“The Maid’s Tragedy” isn’t the only area production tapping theater history for tales about daring women. Rep Stage, in Columbia, Md., has mounted “Antigone Project: A Play in 5 Parts,” an effort by five contemporary female dramatists to reimagine Sophocles’s tragedy “Antigone” (about a young woman who defies a ban on the burial of her brother). Conceived by Chiori Miyagawa and Sabrina Peck, and written by Karen Hartman, Tanya Barfield, Caridad Svich, Lynn Nottage and Miyagawa, this 2004 play recasts Antigone as a beach babe ogling surfers; a family member of an African American soldier killed in World War I, a museum exhibit; a woman in a modern African village; and a new arrival in Hades.
Unfortunately, all of the playlets register as desultory footnotes to a classic. Some of the pieces feel self-indulgent or pretentious; most are tedious; and, despite themes that include war, social injustice and the frailty of memory, none approach the harsh urgency of Sophocles’s drama about the conflict between what is right and what is necessary. The most watchable of the scenes is Miyagawa’s portrait of Antigone and her former fiance meeting in the afterlife: As the young people recall their past and prepare for possible reincarnation, the encounter becomes fitfully poignant.
The production’s competent role-juggling cast — consisting of Daniel Ayoola, Shannon L. Graham, Katie Hileman, Kelly Renee Armstrong and Jonathan Feuer — does its best with the material. Staged by Rep Stage co-producing artistic director Joseph W. Ritsch, the production gains some gravitas from Jim Fouchard’s scenic design, which evokes both a bombed-out building and an abandoned archaeological site. Watching “Antigone Project,” you’ll feel as gloomy as this set-up looks.
The Maid’s Tragedy by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. Directed by Angela Kay Pirko; costume designer, Heather Whitpan; fight director, Casey Kaleba; composer, Will Kenyon. With Keegan Cassady, Greg Atkin, Rebecca Speas, Brendan McMahon and Mary Myers. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Tickets: $20. Through March 6 at the Sanctuary at Convergence, 1801 N. Quaker Lane, Alexandria. Visit bravespiritstheatre.com
Antigone Project: A Play in 5 Parts conceived by Chiori Miyagawa and Sabrina Peck; written by Karen Hartman, Tanya Barfield, Caridad Svich, Lynn Nottage and Chiori Miyagawa. Directed by Joseph W. Ritsch; lighting design, Joseph Robert Walls; sound, William D’Eugenio; costumes, Julie Potter; projections, Sarah Tundermann; properties, Mollie Singer. About 75 minutes. Tickets: $15-40. Through March 6 in the Studio Theatre of Howard Community College’s Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Visit repstage.org or call 443-518-1500.