Penned by Playwright Thomas Middleton in 1621, WOMEN BEWARE WOMEN has waited almost 400 years to make its Chicago debut. Middleton wrote this tale from the perspective of the ladies. Although mired in a male dominated world by their gender happenstance, his female characters coerce their way into better positions. Whether it’s for nobility, security or just plain sex, the women manipulate the men and each other to get what they want. In contrast to the playfulness of a Shakespearean comedy where characters are duped into love, Middleton is much more about the primal eroticism. He likes his romance a little naughty with the gal on top. Imagine if all the female characters in “As You Like It” or “Much Ado About Nothing” were fashioned after Lady MacBeth. Middleton’s women are lusty, ambitious and sometimes ruthless.
Director Kathryn Walsh (no relation) stages this play like an intimate parlor game. The audience sits in a make-shift salon. Set Designer Sarah Watkins creates an elegant and functional ambiance. Within the audience’s couches and chairs, little nooks are reserved for the drama to unfold. The closeness gives it a personal appeal as the actors tango, duel or die at the audience’s feet. Although I liked the look of these posh confines, I selected the worst possible seat. The loveseat directly to the left of the entrance is very comfortable but the view is usually obstructed. Walsh stages it with an actor often planted with his/her back to this loveseat and effectively blocking the characters’ exchange. Without the visual, the emotion of the moment became reliant on just the audio.
Unfortunately, a few of the cast weren’t as connected to the formal prose as the others. Their recitations had emotionless deliveries and fell flat. Others stood out for their passionate performances. A charismatic Josh Zagoren (Leantio/Sordido) played to the entire room. Initially, he hilariously portrayed this all-consuming love for Eliza Hofman (Bianca). As Zagoren and Hofman are getting it on, a resigned Morgan McCabe (his mother) chortles, grunts and rolls her eyes for the amusement of the audience. Later, Zagoren transforms drastically from happy-go-lucky to dejected hater. At one point, his meltdown on the couch makes him seem both equally vulnerable and dangerous. His fiery angst was palpable.
The refined Loretta Rezos (Livia) controls most of the action from her haughty pedestal. The cool Rezos is the unflappable game player. At several points, her poised cruelty stuns. Even though the relational coupling of Michael Mercier (Hippolito) and Maggie Scantom (Isabella) is taboo, their tango scene still sizzles. Mercier and Scantom crush it in one of the most erotic dance sequences I’ve ever seen.
Costume Designer Carolyn Rose Sullivan brings the play into the early 20s with exquisite looks. She mingles lace on the men and metal on the women. She tops Rezos’ silky lounge attire with a man’s hat. She drapes Scantom in velvet ropes. The wardrobe matches Middleton’s intent of playing against and to the stereotypes of women. Despite my seat vantage point and some stilted performances, I really enjoyed WOMEN BEWARE WOMEN. It was unexpectedly liberating for its time period and still thought-provoking for these contemporary times.
Running Time: Two hours and forty minutes includes an intermission
At The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee
Written by Thomas Middleton
Directed by Kathryn Walsh
Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 7:30
Sundays at 3pm
Thru September 27th
Buy Tickets at www.twopencetheatre.org
Production photo by Ben Chandler
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