There are no easy answers for the audience in Professor Jay O’Berski’s modern adaptation of Women Beware Women. O’Berski’s interpretation is exceedingly puzzling and provocative, and from the beginning casts the audience in a world of love and lust, deceit and danger and, most certainly, debauchery.
Thomas Middleton’s 17th century Jacobean tragedy is often classified as a morality play that cautions against indulging our basest desires, but viewers of Women Beware Women should not expect a typical morality play. If anything, the rendition is the exact opposite. The characters are as sensuous as they are monstrous. They are powerful and passionate, and no one character seems more redeemable than the next.
“Reducing this show—and perhaps life—to a moral code flattens out so many experiences,” said Lucy Goodson, a Duke senior who plays Bianca, in an email. “Love is mixed with doubt, is mixed with joy, is mixed with betrayal, is mixed with depression, is mixed with self-discovery, and we arrive again at love. To believe any one aspect can live in isolation greatly underestimates the power of the human condition. This play resists ‘easy’ morality, I hope, because it’s difficult to make anyone a black-hatted villain.”
The ambiguity adds to the potency of such a play, where the audience can experience these characters and decide in the end: who did you identify with? Who is the most villainous? Who is to blame?
“My feeling is that you root for the antiheroes much more than the good guys in these plays,” O’Berski said. “So, while [Women Beware Women] may be set up as seemingly a morality play, it ends up being more of an anti-morality play. You might come to a terrible ending, but it’s really fun to watch these characters behave horribly and go out in a blaze of glory.”
One striking feature of the play is its cast of all-female Duke students. Originally, the play was not an all-female production, but during casting O’Berski was inspired by the female students auditioning for the play. “I’m just really interested in the strength of women and the sense that there are no prescribed roles for women anymore. It’s just all bets are off,” O’Berski said.
The actresses had substantial control in deciding how to portray their characters in a modern setting. They chose how their character looked, their backstory and most interestingly their sex, gender and sexual orientation. As a result, some actresses still portray the original male characters, while others take liberties in changing their genders. For example, The Duke has become The Duchess; moreover, one character is gender-neutral.
Part of Women Beware Women’s impact is how the all-female cast changes the dynamics of the play’s relationships—ones deeply concerned with sexual desire and love. The gender distinctions, or lack thereof, will challenge the viewers to resist conventions and consider human relationships outside of society’s constructs of sexuality.
“At the start, the audience will want to pin labels on the characters by what they know—lesbian, bi, masculine, feminine, butch, femme, bitch, lady, etc.,” Goodson said. “However, pretty soon into the play, these labels just don’t matter. They can’t matter. Our actions are unrelated to our gender or sex or our sexual orientation.”
Through this reworking of Middleton, O’Berski’s cast and crew encourage a discourse by presenting emotional extremes through questionable characters. From the terrifying alternate ending to the cast selection, O’Berski has crafted an uncanny experience, a world that could easily become our own.
“We’ve created a new world where women can get married openly without ridicule, but it’s also far from an ideal world. It’s still a world that has corrupt and twisted people in it,” said Alyssa Wong, a senior playing The Duchess. “Middleton writes about corruption and [the violent aftermath of love], and you get aspects of both in this play. Love is powerful and pure and destructive and poisonous at the same time, which can be appealing.”
Women Beware Women runs in Sheafer Theater from Nov. 8-10 and 15-17 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 11 and 18 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $5 for students.