“Women Beware Women” showcases ugliness at its best.
Harsh, gruesome and sometimes downright repulsive, the play gives you the sense of watching a catastrophe unfold, and leaning forward to witness the final wreck. Its characters are driven by lust and greed and pride and utter debasement to the point that you want to see them fail. At the same time, you want — so badly — to see them succeed. It’s a precarious dichotomy, but it works.
“Women Beware Women” is not an easy play to watch. What starts as a relatively benign premise — man brings wife home to his unsuspecting mother in 16th-century Florence — soon devolves into what can only be called a disaster, equal parts sordid and satisfying. There is incest. There is adultery. There is assault. And that’s only within the first 30 minutes.
However, the play’s value isn’t just in the shock, the spectacle. Sure, people scream in filthy corners and snarl at each other in filthy beds, but they also scream and snarl in places thought untouchable, almost sacred. Aristocratic parlors. Leisure gardens. The bride’s dressing room, right before her wedding ceremony. It’s this contrast between such lowly behavior and its high-class setting that drives the play forward, makes it more than just sick voyeurism. It’s true that there’s nothing better than watching these people, trapped in their stiff coats and flared dresses, rip off their restraints and cover themselves in grime, sex and blood.
But, at its heart, this play is not a tragedy. It’s a love story about lonely people deeply disturbed by life, who want to find some kind of purpose, wherever that might be.
The cast of this play is phenomenal, but there are some obvious standout talents. First is Annie Hägg DRA ’16, who plays Livia: doting aunt on the surface and, underneath, the chess-master who orchestrates the mess that follows — and later succumbs to it. From the minute Hägg appears on stage, she takes control of the scene; the very manner in which she stands, walks, gestures, commands attention. For Hägg, Livia isn’t so much a role as it is a second skin. She settles into her character so easily that it’s difficult not to believe that Livia actually exists, that the audience isn’t actually witnessing a buttoned-up schemer unraveling into a marvelous and vulnerable monster.
Then there’s Baize Buzan DRA ’17, who plays Bianca, the once-pure wife who later catches the eye of a unabashedly lascivious duke. When Buzan presents virginal, it’s hard to imagine Bianca as anything more than a blushing newlywed in her simple cotton dress and low heels. But when Buzan presents mistress, it’s impossible to picture Bianca doing anything else but wrapping her legs around her lover, lips inches from his neck. And when Buzan presents aristocrat, Bianca transforms into a fur-wrapped stonewall, as beautiful and cold as porcelain. Buzan excels at capturing the multiple facets of Bianca’s character, sometimes switching from one to the other in the same scene, and it’s this fluidity that makes her so captivating, so compelling and so triumphant.
Finally, Paul Stillman Cooper DRA ’16 plays Sordido, the “common man” in the midst of all of this wealth and excess. He’s perhaps the dark horse of the play. At first, he seems nothing more than a sidekick to Ward (Bradley James Tejeda DRA’16), whose arranged marriage predominates the first half of the play. Sordido appears to be mere comic relief, whether screaming his way into a scene, cricket bat in hand, or crawling from underneath the raised stage to partake in casual conversation with the rest of the characters. And while Cooper is undoubtedly magnetic in these scenes, it’s during the latter half of the play that his skills truly shine. As Sordido becomes more chilling than hilarious, Cooper manages this transition with such ease that it feels like a natural deterioration of the psyche. And he steals such presence that by the end of the play, the story seems to belong just as much to Sordido as it does to Bianca.
“Women Beware Women” is an arresting work of art. It’s a play that isn’t afraid to take risks, whether by anachronistic elements — the jarring mix of 16th-century Florence and the modern day — or by unconventional stagecraft. Director Leora Morris DRA ’16 slaps viewers in the face with a refreshing boldness, adapting a sordid satire into a brilliant surprise. There is nothing familiar about “Women Beware Women,” and that’s a good thing.