Nothing entertains like murder, except maybe illicit sex. For those unable to choose between the two, there’s Red Bull Theater’s adroit, opulent staging of Thomas Middleton’s scandal-encrusted Jacobean revenge tragedy, “Women Beware Women” — one of the writer’s most confounding, ambiguous plays. Is it a dusty, serious-minded fable about the dangers of impurity or a tongue-in-cheek amusement with some surreptitious political commentary? To helmer-adapter Jesse Berger’s credit, he doesn’t offer answers; he just makes sure the questions are as entertaining as possible.
A 17th century comedy almost always ends with a marriage; our first sign of trouble is that “Women” begins with one. Dirt-poor Leantio (Jacob Fishel) has eloped with beautiful young Bianca (Jennifer Ikeda) — “the best piece of theft that ever was committed,” in his words. “Great in wealth, more now in rage,” her parents are on the hunt for their son-in-law, so Leantio seeks refuge with his own ma (Roberta Maxwell), a poor Florentine who is pretty sure Bianca won’t be content with her son’s modest means. “What I can bid you welcome to is Want, but make it all your own,” she says to Bianca by way of greeting.
There’s so much clever, rich language in this play it’s tempting to quote the entire script. Middleton’s story is a tragedy, sure, but it’s a very funny tragedy, and Berger has obliged the playwright with a staging that spotlights the laughs without digressing from the multi-stranded plot. This is precisely the play that needs a good chuckle every few minutes — so many of these characters are simply bad people, and those who don’t start off cruel and manipulative end up that way by the bloody final scene.
Take the tender, kindhearted Bianca herself — she’s too perfect at the play’s start, and it doesn’t take 15 minutes for Middleton to erase her sunny disposition.
As she stands at the window of her mother-in-law’s little house, the Duke of Florence (Geraint Wyn Davies) appears, looking like Liberace’s older brother in an unearthly pink ensemble that defies description, but seems to appeal mightily to Bianca (maybe she’s into kitsch). The Duke takes one look from the street at the gorgeous peasant girl, and decides he’d like to invite her to his court.
When Bianca accepts the invitation, her encounter with the prodigiously wealthy Duke puts into her, among other things, that lust for luxury that so worried Leantio’s mother. We’ve seen this group of reprobates in action already — courtier Hippolito (Al Espinosa) is in love with his niece Isabella (Liv Rooth); Isabella’s suitor (a wonderfully stupid Alex Morf) is dumber than a chimp and approximately as chaste.
And that’s the end of the sweet little wife from the play’s prologue.
Middleton sets Bianca, Leantio and the rest of the court variously against one another in such a tangle of schemes and hatreds that the play’s finale — a murderous masque, in which everybody kills everybody else — seems like a foregone conclusion about 30 minutes into the two-hours-plus drama.
What keeps “Women” going, besides surefooted direction, is the sense that its initial spate of cruelties are simply Middleton winding the play up — the real pleasure is watching the wages of sin unfold.
Rarely is the cast of a 350-year-old tragedy so unmistakably in sync with the work and each other as these actors are here; besides having his or her own look (all of Clint Ramos’ costumes are horribly wonderful, not just the Duke’s), every performer seems to have invented a play’s worth of backstory. Everett Quinton’s waddling, priggish Fabritio (father of Isabella) is delightful in one scene; Livia, Fabritio’s conniving professional widow of a sister (the delightful Kathryn Meisle), gnaws amusingly on the scenery.
There are plenty of companies devoted to obscure work in New York, but Red Bull’s productions aren’t just dedicated to “plays of heightened language,” as their mission statement claims. More importantly, they’re about making those plays as gripping and fun as they must have been when they were paying for Middleton’s dinner. “Women Beware Women” is proof not just that classic theater is alive, but that it can still be surprising after hundreds of years.