For years now, Jay O'Berski has sought and found refreshing (and occasionally, radical) new insights in classic texts. One of the region's leading—and certainly most fearless—directors, his adaptations for Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern and Manbites Dog Theater have cracked open the seemingly impenetrable worlds of Chekhov and Shakespeare among others, and forged bridges of understanding between the times and places they wrote of and our own.
But Women Beware Women, his current production at Duke Theater Studies, reminds us that even auteurs have their off days. This run, in which Thomas Middleton's Jacobean drama is exhumed but decidedly not revived, fully qualifies as one of them.
Scholars have long debated the intent of this 17th-century work about the supposedly proper place of women. As late as 2009, Jesse Berger, who helmed the Red Bull Theater's famous revival in New York, asked if it was "[t]ragic, comic or a combination? Sincere, silly or ironic? Feminist, sexist or something more complex?" Tellingly, Berger concluded, "For me the answer is all of the above."
Middleton wrote the play during a time of substantive debate about women's roles in English society. But instead of finding vivid, contemporary counterparts for ancient roles, one of the traditional strengths in his adaptations, here O'Berski relies more on caricatures (including a redneck mom on the make and an abusive black professional athlete) than dimensional characters with any discernable arc to them.
An uneven and inadequately trained student cast struggled to make even these straw women and men believable. In one single-note performance, a lover kept her heart on her sleeve all night, in a world where intrigues at court force true loves to wear a mask. Another irrepressibly chewed the scenery throughout the show, almost the theatrical equivalent of a puppy. I'm hoping that that much energy can be more usefully focused in future work.
O'Berski's skills as an editor also seemed amiss. These novice actors would understandably have difficulty selling Middleton's frequent (and sermonizing) soliloquies. Inclusion of so many of them dragged down the show almost every time an actor was left alone on stage. On the other hand, O'Berski deleted one of the most famous games of chess in all literature, used as a distraction while the evil Duchess (Alyssa Wong) seduces a guardian's daughter-in-law.
O'Berski's staging repeatedly reverted to the static on Torry Bend's set, a black trapezoidal void. Actors, who were frequently given nothing else to do, simply stopped, posed and spoke—just not always in that order. Costuming and makeup failed some of these actors as well. An everyday floral top makes Livia (an interesting Molly Forlines) seem more a frumpy suburban mom than the most dangerous liaison in Florence, Italy. The fake lashes that a risque Alyssa Wong sports on one eye while playing the sadistic Duchess is, no doubt, a tribute to Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. But at this distance, the device just makes her look cockeyed.
There's also a case to be made here for deceptive advertising, since Wong's stunning wraith, captured in Alex Maness' advance publicity photo, appears nowhere in this production.
Lucy Goodson and Kelly McCrum transcend some of this show's problems as Bianca and Isabella, two innocents supposedly seduced within this corrupting web of power and desire. Credit the stage presence as well of Eve St. Lin as the Duchess' implacable messenger and enforcer, and Jamie Bell's amusingly blasé take on the ironically named Guardiano.
But in an evening riddled with so many difficulties, our best advice is regrettably this: Beware Women Beware Women.
This article appeared in print with the headline "What women want."