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Power Plays: Classical Actors Ensemble presents two works ruled by gender disparity

Lou Bedor III

Lou Bedor III

Classical Actors Ensemble is presenting a pair of 17th-century plays, in repertory at Gremlin Theatre, that demonstrate the persistent problems of patriarchy... including the problem of having women’s stories told by male playwrights.

William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women both pivot on more-or-less ordinary women who spark the sexual interest of powerful men. Both plays dramatize the injustice of women’s bodies being made men’s pawns, a theme that’s underscored by directors Diane Mountford and Joseph Papke, respectively.

Measure is the drier of the two, but with material like this you’re not really looking for razzle-dazzle. What you are looking for is powerful performances, and Mountford has those—particularly from Madeline Wall. She plays Isabella, a novitiate who sets out to beg for the life of her brother Claudio (Jacob Hooper), condemned because his fiancée (Samantha Fairchild) is pregnant before the couple have been officially married.

Lord Angelo (Daniel Kristian Vopava) is too righteous to overlook the crime of passion, but not too righteous to commit his own. If Isabella will lay with him, he says, her brother may be saved. In a confrontation with stomach-turning resonance, Angelo dismisses Isabella’s threat to expose his coercion: If he denies it, no one will believe her. “Say what you can,” he tells the devastated woman, “my false o’erweighs your true.”

In the end, Shakespeare achieves a sort of happy ending, albeit one this production complicates in a defiant twist playing on an ambiguity in the script. In Women, Middleton walks a darker, almost chaotic path. While Papke’s darkly comic production makes for more accessible fare, it can’t overcome the limitations of a busy script with a title that accurately reflects the playwright’s misplaced attention.

True enough, as played by Samantha V. Papke, Livia is certainly a woman to be wary of. She helps the lustful Duke of Florence (Tyler Stamm) lure the newlywed Bianca (Eva Gemlo) to his chambers, knowing full well the duke means to force Bianca into adultery. Gemlo is gripping, spiraling through an increasingly desperate range of emotions as the duke calmly informs her that he’s not above the use of force.

A second plot doesn’t connect as powerfully, in part because of a miscast Joe Wiener opposite the superbly poised Fairchild as his niece, a young woman who tolerates engagement to an obnoxious fop only because it obscures a secret affair with her uncle.

The play is rarely produced, notes the director in a program note, “likely due to its rather outlandish finale.” What’s more deeply problematic, though, is the play’s picture of a moral universe where vice given rein ultimately engulfs the players indiscriminately. A more pointed focus seems in order. In a play where one man rapes at whim and another takes his own niece to bed, are women really the ones who need a warning label?

Classic Actors Ensemble
Gremlin Theatre
550 Vandalia St., Minneapolis
Though December 23; 651-321-4024