The 17th-century drama “Women Beware Women” begins with a marriage and ends with a bloodbath. In between, Classical Actors Ensemble’s latest production presents an outrageously hyperbolic tale of privilege, lust and predatory manipulation that feels as immediate as the latest breaking headline.

Thomas Middleton’s play, running in repertory this month with Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” demonstrates the ways in which women negotiate male power structures by cooperating in their own subjection. Bianca (Eva Gemlo) has escaped her wealthy family and eloped with an impoverished suitor, but her happily-ever-after is compromised when she catches the licentious interest of the Duke of Florence. Meanwhile, Isabella (Samantha Fairchild) faces an arranged marriage to a moneyed mooncalf while being groomed for an incestuous relationship with her uncle.

In the middle of this spiderweb sits Livia (Samantha V. Papke), Isabella’s aunt. Papke’s character, an assured and blithely amoral pillar of society, is happy to facilitate the seductions of both women by the Duke and her brother. It’s only when her own sexual misconduct is revealed that she discovers she, too, is subject to the double standards these two men represent.

Director Joseph Papke sets this work in the mid-20th century, and the action plays out on a set designed by Dietrich Poppen to conjure a chessboard. Indeed, the game is a metaphor overarching the entire production, not just in a key scene in which Livia distracts Bianca’s escort with a chess match while the young woman is being raped in another room, but in the hierarchies of power and powerlessness that the various characters represent.

Of course, despite this play’s soaring language and its insights into the dynamics of sexual politics, “Women Beware Women” presents obstacles Papke and his cast can’t completely overcome. While Gemlo, Fairchild and Samantha Papke offer compelling portrayals, Middleton’s characters often seem to be mere puppets dancing to the tune of his plot. The tone giddily rockets back and forth between high tragedy and broad farce, the latter embodied by Jacob Hooper as Isabella’s intended. Hooper and his sidekick (the wonderfully loopy Timothy Daly) indulge in a series of ludicrously campy scenes that seem almost surreally irrelevant to the sinister machinations unfolding around them.

None of these challenges begin to match what’s presented by the play’s finale, where nearly every character meets a violent death in uniquely spectacular fashion. The sheer range of required murder weapons tests the production’s means and the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

These hurdles aside, Classical Actors Ensemble must be lauded for bringing this little-known but highly relevant work to life in a solid, vigorous and often chilling production.

 

Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities theater critic.