Despite--or perhaps because of--the lack of punctuation in Thomas Middleton's Women Beware Women, Jesse Berger's latest production is an explosively clear rendition of a classic Jacobean love story (with shades of a dramatic version of Moliere's School for Wives). No surprise that his company is called Red Bull--like the drink, you can apparently mix them with any drama and the results will be eye-opening, dizzying, and thrilling.
In previous productions, this troupe has been defined by what they're not. (Shakespeare is, after all, so last year.) They are done a great service, then, by Women Beware Women, which is a full-bodied play on its own, one in which "vengeance [meets] vengeance like a chess match." Though there are echoes of, say Sir Andrew Aguecheek in the naive Ward (Alex Morf), who is being pushed into courtship by his jovial companion, Sordido (Jeff Biehl), the target of his "affection," Isabella (Liv Rooth) is more than just saucy--she's involved with her uncle, Hippolito (Al Espinosa), thanks to her aunt Livia's (Kathryn Meisle) machinations. Though it's expected that the more Leantio (Jacob Fishel) tries to hide his beautiful new wife, Bianca (Jennfier Ikeda), away from the outside world, the likelier he is to lose her, it's rare that he is undone by his lord, the Duke (Geraint Wyn Davies) and rarer still that the duke's brother, the Cardinal (Jonathan Fried), has the morality to condemn that union. The language is hot-blooded yet clever, and even the most archetypal characters--like Isabella's father, a scalding judge named Fabritio (Everett Quinton), or Leantio's clucking Mother (Roberta Maxwell)--have large reversals.
Women Beware Women is a high point not just for classics, but for Red Bull (there's even a credit for Paul Rubin's aerial effects). The dark and deep basement of 45 Bleecker was appropriate for The Revenger's Tragedy, and the slick, modern Peter Jay Sharp Theater fit their rendering of Edward II, but it's the tall, wide, and old Theater at St. Clement's that frees them up. (There's even a balcony scene or two for good measure.) Bustling scenes draw out the range and talent of the company and Berger's direction: a banquet layers the broad physical comedy of Ward's attempts to glimpse his bride-to-be with the tense subtext of Isabella's newfound confidence in Hippolito. It then uses depth to foreground Leantio's jealous asides while giving the floor to Livia's appetites in the background, her eyes fixed on him as her voice drops an octave: "This makes me madder to enjoy him now." Mere description can hardly capture all the nuances of the scene and the setting (look how the darkening of a balcony foreshadows--literally--an approaching sordidness).
Fans of modern musicals will not feel out of place with this classic, straight tragedy for each line sings, and the themes of empowerment, jealousy, and bold action are more than crystal clear. "He that lives loveless, every day's his doom," says Hippolito; how fortunate are we, then, to live in a moment (and with a play) so filled with bloody, bloody love.