Monday, December 15, 2008

Women Beware Women


By Thomas Middleton. Adapted and directed by Jesse Berger. Red Bull Theatre at Theater at St. Clements. CLOSED.

Critics agree that the relatively young Red Bull Theatre, whose mission is to revive little-seen Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, has kicked it up a notch with this scintillating and strikingly contemporary production of Middleton's 1621 classic, which somehow manages to be a bloody revenge tragedy with plenty of laughs. Indeed, though some critics thought these contrasting tones don't merge perfectly onstage, and a few wondered if Berger's extra-textual ending choice amplifies or distorts Middleton's cynicism, most were too thrilled by Jesse Berger's juicy staging and the performances, particularly that of Kathryn Meisle's conniving Livia, to quibble. NOTE: We didn't grade the Daily News' piece, billed as a review but in fact featuring an interview with costumer Clint Ramos.

That Sounds Cool A+
(Aaron Riccio) No surprise that [this] 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...Bustling scenes draw out the range and talent of the company and Berger's direction...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.

The New York Times A
(Charles Isherwood) A Jacobean rarity that hasn’t seen a significant New York production in two decades, this sizzling brew of adultery, incest and murder, murder and more murder has been spruced up, juiced up and set scampering across the stage of the Theater at St. Clement’s by the enterprising young Red Bull Theater...This exuberant, vividly acted production should cement the company's reputation as a troupe that lovers of classic theater should put on the must-watch list...Mr. Berger, who directed the production, has sliced away significant amounts of language, but the loss will be mourned only by Jacobean fanatics. The spiky contours of the characters, prey to reversals that can cause them to change course with disarming speed, are intact, as is the interlocking story of one marriage coming undone as another is being manufactured. The liveliest of the three central female roles is played with delectable wit and poise by Kathryn Meisle.

Variety A
(Sam Thielman) Is it a dusty, serious-minded fable about the dangers of impurity or a tongue-in-cheek amusement with some surreptitious political commentary? To helmer-adapter Jesse Berger's credit, he doesn't offer answers; he just makes sure the questions are as entertaining as possible...There's so much clever, rich language in this play it's tempting to quote the entire script. Middleton's story is a tragedy, sure, but it's a very funny tragedy, and Berger has obliged the playwright with a staging that spotlights the laughs without digressing from the multi-stranded plot...Rarely is the cast of a 350-year-old tragedy so unmistakably in sync with the work and each other as these actors are here...Women Beware Women is proof not just that classic theater is alive, but that it can still be surprising after hundreds of years.

NY Post A
This 17th-century work has been given a rare and startling revival by the Red Bull Theater, an enterprising company devoted to classics that thankfully steers clear of tired war horses that pop up on city stages. Directed by the theater's artistic director Jesse Berger, who also provided the abridged and at times less-than-faithful adaptation (one of the major characters here meets an unfortunate fate that he avoided in the original), the production vividly conveys the playwright's modernistic perspective on sexual politics...Wildly entertaining and fully accessible. A
(Nat Cassidy) The script never seems to be able to decide whether it wants to be taken seriously as a drama, or as a black comedy, or as a typical Jacobean cautionary tale about court excess, or maybe as a treatise on infidelity. Of course, this sort of categorical indecision is not always a bad thing, provided it lands in hands capable enough to use such polyphony to the production's advantage...Red Bull's production of Women Beware Women embraces its inherent idiosyncrasies, and commits fully to the absurdities that pepper the script, particularly towards the end...The production is unsurprisingly top-notch.

CurtainUp Z A-
(Dierdre Donovan) Worth seeing for its top-notch cast, its scrumptious confection of a set, and its exuberant interpretation...Adapted and directed by Jesse Berger, the play has been streamlined for an air-tight production. Without sacrificing the original work's integrity, Berger has smartly stripped away some of the arcane phrases and expressions in the dialogue, but keeping all of the juicy idioms and metaphors that make this social satire so vivid and timely. It's a true marriage of an old text to a modern voice, that makes Middleton a man of today.

Time Out NY A-
(Adam Feldman) It would be easy to get lost in the surface dazzle of Jesse Berger’s whip-smart production: David Barber’s clever set, with its divine deus ex machina; and especially Clint Ramos’s astonishingly luxurious costumes, the most beautifully conceived and executed of any I have seen this year. But the performances pull you back into the play’s strange reality. Nearly the whole cast is excellent, led by Kathryn Meisle as the sexy, conniving Livia...Once again, Red Bull delivers classical theater with a sharply modern edge: lust without the dust.

Theatermania A-
(Patrick Lee) Excitingly proves to have contemporary blood in its veins. Under Jesse Berger's deft direction, the social satire in Middleton's Jacobean comic tragedy is immediately made accessible for modern audiences...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...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.

Backstage A-
(Karl Levett) In this lively adaptation by Jesse Berger, who also directed, the play falls into two distinct halves. Up to intermission, you'd swear the Jacobean play with its complex of interwoven plot lines is a raunchy romantic comedy of manners. After intermission, you quickly learn that those entertaining plot lines all lead to vengeance...What is abundantly clear is that Middleton, with his ever-cynical eye, quickly creates fully drawn characters who are self-absorbed, lusty, ambitious--and interesting to know. Though set in Renaissance Florence, the play, with its focus on sex, money and politics, paradoxically offers an edgy modernity for contemporary audiences.

Village Voice A-
(Alexis Soloski) Spread over four playing spaces at the Theater at St. Clement's like ganache, the design has a tarted-up air—luxe and tawdry at once. This seems somehow appropriate for Women, a derisive tragedy that occasions little pity...Berger's competing impulses—toward both the tragic and the camp—achieve fruition rather than friction. The sight of so much taffeta and gilt laden with so many bodies is a delight. Some of the actors seem unable to reconcile Middleton's tonal difficulties and Berger's divided interests. But Meisle, as the very lusty widow, offers a wonderfully vibrant performance—she's the most fatal of femmes.

American Theatre Web B+
(Andy Propst) Berger's staging zips along for the first half as the stage is set for the bloodshed that generally comes from any tragedy of the era. And even though theatergoers can sense the impending carnage, it's difficult to not savor Meisle's carefully crafted turn as the duplicitous Livia and Ikeda's rendering of the self-confident, and later self-loving, Bianca...Unfortunately, the production (and play) sags after the intermission (which would not have existed in Middleton's time) and it takes time for the momentum, so beautifully achieved during the first half of the production, to return.

Offoffonline B
(Ed Karam) Jesse Berger’s adaptation captures the spirit deftly and is marvelously well-spoken by a commanding cast...For the most part, the flaws are minor occasional acting excesses, such as an over-the-top moment of mugging to the audience by Livia at Leantio’s hotness. However, there is one serious exception: Berger, whose director’s note boasts of Middleton’s “unique voice,” has changed the ending as well as the nature of an important character.

That Sounds Cool A+ 14; NYT A 13; Variety A 13; NY Post A 13; A 13; CU A- 12; TONY A- 12; TM A- 12; BS A- 12; Village Voice A- 12; ATW B+ 11; Offoffonline B 10; TOTAL: 147 / 12 = 12.25 (A-)

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