Howard Barker

A Sentimental Education

Review of Women Beware Women at Yale School of Drama

Howard Barker’s re-working of Thomas Middleton’s Jacobean tragedy, Women Beware Women, directed by Leora Morris as her thesis show at the Yale School of Drama, makes considerable demands on viewers and players alike. The drama that Barker more or less maintains through the first half tends to feel like Shakespeare minus the poetic self-analysis but with a veneer of what could be called perverse charm. While the second act, penned by Barker, and given an inspired spin by Morris, kicks ass—simply put.

Baize Buzan, Paul Stillman Cooper, Sean Patrick Higgins, Annie Hagg

Baize Buzan, Paul Stillman Cooper, Sean Patrick Higgins, Annie Hagg

In the Middleton act, Morris and her cast play to the camp effects of the material—with, among other modernizing touches, a bawdy lyric from Sordido (Paul Stillman Cooper) delivered as a rap, complete with mouthed beats provided by Ward (Bradley James Tejeda), and a big dance number that serves to get all those very colorful costumes onstage at once. But such touches don’t manage to enliven what is fairly turgid going, in part because the tone feels like a bedroom farce played over a nasty tragedy.

Worse, the play is lacking a hero or heroine, which becomes a significant element in the play’s second act, but in the early going the plots we witness are busy but not compelling. In one plot, Leantio (Sean Patrick Higgins), a lowly man, loses his new wife Bianca (Baize Buzan) to rape or “seduction” by the ever lusty Duke (Galen Kane), while, in another, a ditzy aristocrat Fabritio (Dylan Frederick) tries to marry off his eligible daughter Isabella (Shaunette Renée Wilson) to an even ditzier brat (Tejeda), Ward of the scheming Guardiana (Jenelle Chu). Meanwhile, Isabella’s uncle Hippolito (Niall Powderly) has designs of his own on his niece, which his sister—the very busy bawd Livia (Annie Hägg)—helps along, much as she also helps the Duke to help himself to the charms of Bianca. What both Middleton and Barker have in mind, it seems, is the raging unpleasantness harbored in the hearts of well-born humanity, particularly the libidinal viciousness of women who are “past it.” Unable to enjoy the attentions of the like of the Duke, who boasts he’s never bedded a woman of thirty years, Livia and Guardiana get their jollies by corrupting the innocent.

But even the put-upon under-class, always vulnerable to predatory “masters,” don’t manage to engage sympathy since they seem as full of cupidity as everyone else. In the early going, Hägg and Powderly show off to best effect, since they carry well the decadent gravitas of seedy aristocrats. Wilson does fine as a proud innocent (though it’s not much of a part), and Buzan gets to display mercurial moods as a teen wife beguiled by a glimpse of her worth in a high-born’s bed. As the Count, Kane has a dour charm and as “the widow”—Leantio’s mother—Juliana Canfield keeps up the comic relief. And special mention to Brontë England-Nelson who is superlative as a self-righteous male Cardinal, brother of the Duke.

The second act opens with an eyeful as Leantio and Livia cavort about naked, congratulating each other on their sexual prowess and, with the youthful flesh on view, giving the lie to the notion that Livia is “aged.” No matter, Barker’s language is a feast and all of Middleton’s rather trivial characters come forward in more cunning configurations. For starters, Ward has surprising resources, played by Tejeda with a seething fury, and Sordido, who seemed a simple foil in the early going, becomes an amoral player in the malevolent plans of Leantio and Livia, who aim to enact vengeance upon Bianca, now vain as a Kardashian.

If we think we’re watching a comeuppance of the upper-class—with the dazed Duke losing his latest conquest when just about to marry her—that’s only part of the machinations here. We’re also, in Barker’s view, seeing the dark underside of a “woman’s world,” with Livia standing for the newly achieved (in the 1980s) political power of women “of a certain age,” able to wield boy toys in the cut-throat world of the moneyed. But the play without a hero alters surprisingly in Morris’ hands as Bianca comes forward, after her rape by Sordido, as a modern heroine, as if tried by a walk of shame to see the culpability of all, and the power play at the heart of male sexuality. Which leaves her free to woo the ingenue.

It’s an upbeat ending, complete with falling walls and doors that seem to free the actors from the roles—and deaths—Middleton wrote for them, and from the over-busy projections of the set. What’s particularly successful here is that we don’t seem to be simply witnessing a breaking down of social custom or a familiar hybrid aesthetic, but rather a revolutionary spirit that wants to overturn expectations with something more confounding. The confrontation may be a bit calculated, but if so, that argues for the value of the Middleton section, for we have to be reminded of how jaded entertainment can be before we can feel how jarring.


Women Beware Women
By Howard Barker and Thomas Middleton
Directed by Leora Morris

Choreographer: Gretchen Wright; Scenic Designer: Claire DeLiso; Costume Designer: Alexae Visel; Lighting Designer: Carolina Ortiz Herrera; Composer and Sound Designer: Kate Marvin; Projection Designer: Yana Biryukova; Production Dramaturg: Nahuel Tellería; Stage Manager: Rebekah Heusel

Cast: Baize Buzan, Juliana Canfield, Jenelle Chu, Paul Stillman Cooper, Brontë England-Nelson, Dylan Frederick, Annie Hägg, Rebecca Hampe, Sean Patrick Higgins, Galen Kane, Steven C. Koernig, Niall Powderly, Bradley James Tejeda, Katie Travers, Shaunette Renée Wilson

Yale School of Drama
January 23-29, 2016