As George W. Bush’s reign nears its inglorious end, many believe that his presidency ranks among the worst ever: Worse than corrupt Warren G. Harding; worse than even dirty trickster Richard M. Nixon. Still, theatergoers might be moved to regard our lame duck with new fondness if they were to attend Albert Camus’s Caligula or Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women, two plays depicting rulers far viler than our current POTUS. Caligula favors murder, incest, and parading in his underwear, while Middleton’s more warmly dressed Duke commits a casual rape that results in wholesale slaughter.
Women Beware Women marks the fourth production from Red Bull Theater, a company devoted to staging Elizabethan and Jacobean plays. Women benefits from a $100,000 grant from the Tony Randall Theatrical Fund, spent apparently on a surfeit of silk gowns and chandeliers. 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.
In Women, Middleton crafts a drama of sex and class. Nice bourgeois newlyweds Leantio (Jacob Fishel) and Bianca (Jennifer Ikeda) learn corruption courtesy of rich widow Lavinia (Kathryn Meisle) and a lascivious Florentine duke (Geraint Wyn Davies). Meanwhile, an uncle seduces a niece, a fool learns courtship, and a Cardinal plots to gain power. Jesse Berger is a lively director, rendering the Jacobean language nicely accessible, but much of the staging feels like he’s marking time until the wonderfully ridiculous fifth act, which begins as a wedding masque and concludes in a bloodbath. Here, 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. Fishel, as her bourgie boy-toy, also acquits himself nicely. Of course, they, too, meet wretched ends. As the poor, ravished Bianca says, a moment before her own death, “Pride, greatness, honors, beauty, youth, ambition/You must all down together/There’s no help for ‘t.”
Pride, greatness, honors, and lots of young men with their shirts off cannot save Horizon Theater Rep’s uniquely terrible production of Albert Camus’s Caligula, in which Rafael de Mussa directs the production and plays the titular role. Compounding his heavy Spanish accent with a furious devotion to mumbling, he portrays the decadent Roman emperor and occasions existential crises in much of the audience (“Why am I here? What is the meaning of this? Why is the theater world so cruel?”).
To say that celebrated Scottish playwright David Greig phoned in his translation is to afford him too much credit. Perhaps he composed it using predictive text messaging: The script teams with clichés like “Nature is a great healer” and “We must keep up appearances.” On the plus side, it does offer a rather singular method for dealing with any budget crisis: “All patricians shall be henceforth obliged to disinherit their children and make a new will leaving everything to the state. [And] as the need for cash arises, we execute people. Randomly.” Someone alert the transition team!