Monday, June 13, 2016

Women Beware Women (review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

Thomas Middleton is a lesser-known Elizabethan playwright, eclipsed by William Shakespeare.  Writing "Jacobean Tragedies," Middleton's most famous work is probably Women Beware Women.  This play has now been stages by the Yours Is Mine theatre company here in Los Angeles.

Producing this play has some advantages and challenges, not least the fact few theatre-goers know the plot and characters going in.  Yes, this counts as both advantages and challenge.

At heart the central character is Lady Livia (Sarah Hollis), a wealthy Florentine widow with two brothers--Fabritio (Christopher Salazar) and Hippolito (James Micheal Cowan).  The former brother is a widower with a beautiful young daughter Isabella (Chelsea Niven).  From this family stems most of the plot.  Like most Jacobean tragedies, an inappropriate love has grown.  Hippolito loves (as in lusts for) his niece, who in turn has been betrothed to the idiot ward of another nobleman.  Livia seemingly solves their dilemna with a lie that reveals no incest involved!

But, as I said, this is a lie.  Not the first lie this lady commits, nor the last. Not by a long shot.

In fact by all rights we should see Livia as a villain--a sexy female Iago destroying lives not out of sociopathy but a willingness to help out others with as few ethics as herself. Instead, and in part because of Hollis' fascinating portrayal, she seems almost innocent, relatively speaking.  After all, she genuinely wants to help others.  She has all kinds of sage advice to give -- practical, if not exactly moral.  And she retains a capacity many villains lack -- Livia can (and does) fall in love.  Totally and unashamedly.  Not that such is necessarily a virtue.

Jacobean tragedies are like that.  The mortal world remains a veil of tears, corrupt even at its best, but especially when it comes to matters of political power.  It is a world where romantic love is doomed unless isolated from wealth, power and temptation.  A world where the most "natural" response to rape by a powerful duke is to forsake the husband who could not protect you for the duke who will.  Such is the position of Bianca (Hayley Brown) who literally has the last word (at least in this production).  She, like Livia, remains strangely sad rather than villainous, even when heaping abuse on the very nice husband (Dane Oliver) who has no idea what happened--and who in a nice twist immediately wins the heart of Livia, at first sight no less.  In a different kind of story, that might almost make for a happy if decidedly dark ending.

No, it doesn't here.  Like Shakespeare's Othello and also Hamlet the real star of Jacobean tragedies is the world, a world where virtue simply cannot flourish.  Imagined, yes.  Long for?  Certainly.  Talked of, pretty constantly.  But can only exist for a few breaths.

Yours In Mine's production of Women Beware Women creates that elegant but fragile and strangely hopeless world in so many ways.  Yes, the performances entertain and enlighten, making what should be more overtly tragic into something funny!  But aiding them are an amazing fusion of light, sound, costumes and set.  The Grenada--a gem of Hacienda architecture with winding courtyards full of trees and (dry) fountains--feels perfect.  One whole office, splashed with different shades of off-white, becomes a stage with chairs surrounding the acting area.  Instead of a steady glow illuminating all, we get instead pools of light amidst what we can hope will prove gentle shadows. Likewise the patterned veil that makes up one whole wall finds itself into many a gown and robe worn by this (sometimes literally) glittering cast.  They strut and glide and dance, but the masque will have its end, its bloody climax.  Because all these people, even the best of them, remain swimming in a dangerous sea with no land anywhere in sight.  How can it end well?

The genteel nightmare that is Women Beware Women plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm as well as Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm at The Grenada Building 672 South La Fayette Park, Studio 34.  The parking lot is free and gated.

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