October 21, 2010 | by Patrick Folliard
‘Women’s’ wily ways

‘Women Beware Women’

Through Nov. 14

Constellation Theatre Company

Source Theatre, 1835 14th  Street, N.W.

$25-$30

1-800-494-8497

www.ConstellationTheatre.org

Caley Milliken, left, and gay actor Ashley Ivey in Constellation's current production 'Women Beware Women,' which plays through Nov. 14. (Photo by Daniel Schwartz; courtesy of Constellation)

Constellation Theatre’s lively production of Thomas Middleton’s Jacobean tragedy “Women Beware Women” is a hardcore lesson in the ways of the world.

“Want is the way to whoredom,” says Livia, a well-heeled cougar, to her much younger and poorer quarry Leantio. The icy noblewoman’s money for love approach is straightforward and — more importantly in this world of vice and power — successful.

Livia is the same woman who facilitates an incestuous relationship between her brother and their niece, and arranges for the Duke of Florence to snatch away a young, sequestered bride. It’s all in a day’s work for this busy lady.

Written in 1621, Middleton’s wickedly enjoyable tale of bad behavior and revenge is based on an even older Italian story about a Venetian heiress who elopes with a lower class boy to cosmopolitan Florence where the young newlyweds are sucked into a maelstrom of lust and sin.

For this production, the company’s artistic director Allison Arkell Stockman has moved the action to a more indeterminate time and place. The look of the show – inspired by movie director Tim Burton — is like a dark fairy tale. The slightly sinister set (designed and evocatively lit by A.J. Guban) is a blue-walled funhouse. Kendra Rai’s costumes are goth-meets-”Moulin Rouge.” Fun and fanciful, they add to the general demented storybook effect. (I’d like to see the scheming Livia styled as a Chanel-clad, chignon-sporting social X-ray rather than a white- haired, senior can can dancer, but that’s for another production.)

Constellation, a consistently ambitious company, takes on Jesse Burger’s 2003 streamlined adaptation of Middleton’s almost four-centuries-old, over-the-top tragedy in verse with relish and enthusiasm, proving that classic theater can be very much alive and full of surprises. The evening’s highlights include intimate two-character exchanges dealing with seduction, betrayal and jealousy — here Stockman’s staging is at its best. In one particularly effective scene, a newly suited and booted Leantio (an appropriately callow Thomas Keegan) slips into the posh new digs of his estranged young wife Bianca (the excellent Caley Milliken) where under the cover of shadowy darkness, they engage in passionate embraces before getting down to more serious matters like discussing her affair with the Duke and Leantio’s showing Bianca an effusive love letter from his recently acquired sugar mama.

The ensemble cast is solid. Standouts include Sheila Hennessey as the calculating Livia and Katy Carkuff as Livia’s gullible, sexually charged niece, Isabella. Lisa Lias plays Lianto’s feisty mother who resembles a better-dressed Granny Clampett. Audiences last saw Brian Hemmingsen as an intimidating Lady Bracknell in SCENA’s production of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Here he plays the macho and manipulative Duke of Florence. Gay actor Ashley Ivey dons robes and skullcap to play the Duke’s equally power-conscious brother, Lord Cardinal. Keith Irby makes the most of his part as the meddling guardian to a rich young heir.

With the notable exception of the highly entertaining masque (the play’s finale in which almost all the players marvelously meet their fates), some of the show’s group scenes seem a little awkward and the play’s comedic instances can feel a tad forced. Fortunately, at the odd moment when things sag or lag, gay composer Jesse Terrill’s terrific original music – alternately pleasantly melodic and eerie – infuses the Constellation’s production with energy and helps to move things along while nicely adding to the show’s overall fractured fairytale atmosphere.

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