Women Beware Women
Red Bull Theatre serves up a highly entertaining, visually rich version of Thomas Middleton's little-seen comic tragedy.
Status, beauty, and the appearance of propriety: these are the highly valued commodities that set the characters against each other, first comically and then tragically. When the beautiful Bianca (Jennifer Ikeda), recently wed to the clerk Leantio (Jacob Fishel), unwittingly walks into a trap set by the Duke of Florence (Geraint Wyn Davies), her protests quickly turn to happy surrender. She sees his lust, based only on a fleeting glimpse while parading by her balcony, as less an offer she can't refuse than as a welcome opportunity for swift social advancement. Why wouldn't she, when the Duke butters her up not with sweet nothings but with promises of wealth and luxury?
Meanwhile, young Isabella (Liv Rooth) has a passion for her uncle, Hippolito (Al Espinosa), that he returns; but, following a bit of trickery by her aunt, Lady Livia (Kathryn Meisle) she obeys her father (Everett Quinton) and presents herself as a potential bride to the rich, foolish Ward (Alex Morf). Comically, she can barely disguise her impatience and disgust with his pathetically inept courtship -- if inspections of her mouth for blackened teeth and of her legs for a limp qualify as courtship -- but her plight is evidence of the society's double standard that Middleton's play explores and this production has knowing fun with.
The text (here adapted by the director) could be superficially interpreted as sexist; after all, it is the vengeance of women that mostly propels the play's final rapid-fire tragedies. However, in this production, it's also made strikingly clear that the women's options are limited by social codes that regard them as little more than chattel, and that the men are capable of the same devil's bargains as the women.
For example, Leantio, publicly made a cuckold only a fortnight after his marriage to Bianca, is bought off by the Duke with a captainship -- it's as if one piece of property has been offered for another -- and then bought again by Livia, who, despite her vitality, knows all too well that women of her advanced age (39) are more likely to acquire young wen with riches rather than with charms. All these manipulations are made at first delicious and then dizzying as Berger moves the action skillfully around the two-tiered set; the dirty dealings are as pulpy as they are wickedly entertaining.
Although one could quibble with some of the choices in regards to performance -- Ikeda, while otherwise very good playing the 16-year old Bianca, doesn't register as that age even in her earliest scenes as an innocent newlywed, and Quinton lays it on a bit thick -- the ensemble forms a tight unit, seemingly unified by a shared vision of the production. Not surprisingly, Meisle is the cast's stand-out, making a vibrant and captivating Lady Livia, and Roberta Maxwell shines by dint of precise comic timing in her relatively small role as Leantio's mother.
When the play takes a turn in the second act toward an almost orgiastic number of tragedies, this production doesn't seem to ask us to invest in them emotionally so much as to note and absorb them as dramatic consequence. Nonetheless, the comic and tragic elements cohere successfully, making this a most worthwhile theatrical experience.