Unseam’d company tackles Shakespeare’s contemporary
Theatergoers can easily find more familiar or frequently done plays on the schedule this summer.
But Kevin Ewert doubts they will find a better title than “Women Beware Women,” which he is directing for the Unseam’d Shakespeare Company.
Written by Shakespeare’s contemporary Thomas Middleton in 1621, this revenge tragedy concerns itself with issues of the inequality of power between genders and classes and some unattractive but very human traits such as avarice, covetousness, deceit and envy.
What begins as a story of true love between two economically unequal people — a wealthy woman and a poor-but-noble peasant — ends as a horror story filled with poisonings and deadly passions.
“Part of (The Unseam’d Shakespeare Company’s) job is to rediscover and reinvent classic plays for our audiences,” Ewert says. “What’s fun is that Middleton is best known for silly comedies — plays about avaricious people who follow their humors. This is a dark revenge tragedy except that it carries over Middleton’s interest in avaricious society. Everybody looks around and covets — ‘I want him. I want her. I want that.”
Despite its darkness, Ewert says “Women Beware Women” is a very funny play. “There’s a rich vein of bawdy humor and craziness through it. Yet it’s got some really horrific action,” he says. “Middleton wanted us to believe he was writing a social comedy and wants the audience to believe they’re looking at a play about love and what happens to true and honest impulses when greed and avarice overrule.”
Extraordinary sequences are wrapped up in reasoned arguments about consent and coercion and whether there can actually be consent when huge disparities exist between those involved, Ewert says.
“We see characters who have this genuine impulse to buy into the way society works which is deviant and mercantile. The impulse goes right through the social shredder and what comes out is incest, rape and murder,” he says. “The play has a lot of meat to it, and we’re having fun doing it. But it’s got an ironic soul to it.”
The phrase he thinks best fits the play’s contradictions is “Horrid Laughter.” It’s taken from the title of “Horrid Laughter in Jacobean Tragedy,” a book written by Nicholas Brooke in 1979.
“‘Horrid Laughter’ is a great phrase. It seems like a contradiction in terms,” Ewert says. “What makes Middleton interesting is he’s not afraid to create a mixed world and characters. Every single character in the play … at some point in the action is acting on a very honest and open and human impulse. There’s always something that brings them into sympathetic focus. Then we watch them act on impulses that take them straight to hell.”
Rather than present it as a costume drama or period piece, Ewert and Unseam’d Shakespeare are doing “Women Beware Women” in vaguely contemporary dress and settings.
“I’ve never been a big person for being incredibly specific about a particular place or particular time. I like clear, uncluttered action. I don’t want to spend time creating an incredibly detailed physical world when I can create a psychological one,” Ewert explains. “It’s tough, because in rehearsals actors feel exposed. But once they start to ride the twists and turns of the characters, they’ve got real riches to play with. They don’t need a detailed Florentine set to get something more substantial to play with.”
The cast includes six women — Laurie Klatscher, Sheila McKenna, Adrienne Wehr, Elena Passarello, Lissa Brennan and Melinda Helfrich and five men — Jay O’berski, Brian Czarniecki, Doug Mertz, Chris Josephs and Todd Betker.
Ewert was drawn to the script because it was one of the few classic plays that had more than one good female role. He also changed the gender of some characters so there were even more female parts than Middleton originally conceived.
He did that to accommodate what he says is the extraordinary amount of female talent in the Pittsburgh area. While creating roles for women is not specifically in the Unseam’d Shakespeare Company’s mandate, it’s something Ewert says is desirable whether its through cross-gender casting or in adapting a male role so it can be played by a female. “We made some alterations and got meaty stuff for women to work on,” he says. “We’ve got even more women bewaring women.”
‘Women Beware Women’