December 28th, 2009

La Loge

A Woman Killed With Kindness

Red Bull Theatre is one of my favorite off-Broadway theatre companies.  They not only mount productions of such unfashionable wonders as Edward II, Women Beware Women, and The Revenger's Tragedy (which last I did not see, and therefore do rue the day), but also put up semi-staged readings of a round dozen of even more unfashionable wonders every year.  I cannot for the life of me remember which ones we've seen, only that we saw them, and were glad--despite the sentimentality and Neanderthal sexual politics that are always part of Elizabethan Renaissance Drama.

Tonight it was Thomas Heywood's A Woman Killed With Kindness (1603).

I could say quite a bit about the strange morality of the text--which presumed its audience would agree that a woman who starved herself to death in penitence for  her adultery  had absolutely done the right thing and that a man who owed a great sum of money to his worst enemy was demonstrating nobility in forcing his younger sister to prostitute herself to him.  I could talk about the poetry (admirably clear, although a bit jog-trot and not even slightly sublime), or the theme--which seems to be that if fate has decreed that you're going to sin, you sin pretty much whether you want to or not, and then you have to suffer and suffer and suffer and suffer the rest of your life, after which (if you really have suffered and repented and cried so much you have permanent tear tracks in your cheeks) you may be allowed to die forgiven and have your friends cry at your funeral.

Unless you're a guy, of course, in which case all you have to do is repent of having made your enemy's life a living hell, pay his debts, and marry his sister instead of just sleeping with her.

But what I really want to talk about is the acting.

You may guess from my description that the characters in this play are a tough sell to a modern audience.  The men are all either prigs or pigs, and sometimes both.  The women are either pious, modest, and weepy (the wife and sister) or earthy and faithful (the servant wenches).  And yet, for the duration of the reading, there wasn't a character up there I really hated.  It's true that Geraint Wyn Davies, who played an old servant who spilled the beans to his master about his wife's shenanigans, was guilty of playing the part for more laughs than Heywood intended, but really, once Carrie Preston, as Lady Frankford, and Michael Emerson, as her cuckolded lord, got the bit between their teeth, it hardly mattered.

They were wonderful.  She delivered all those smarmy lines about her shame showing upon her cheek and her tears of repentance washing the spots of sin from her soul without the slightest bit of self-consciousness  She went down on her knees and she wept real tears and smeared her mascara and imbued those utterly outdated and rather overwrought lines with a wealth of genuine emotion.  And he made Frankford less a jealous husband whose honor has been outraged than a bewildered man whose heart has been broken.  When they were speaking, it was like there was nobody else on the stage.  Now, that's acting.

Then I come home and look up Carrie Preston because I know I've seen her recently, but I can't  remember where.  And it turns out she was Arlene in True Blood, and I'd seen her in the finale of Season One, like, two days ago, where she was weeping over Sookie and Rene and her own bad taste in men, genuinely weeping, just like tonight, except it was completely different because Arlene isn't Lady Frankford and wouldn't understand her in a million years, and her face even looked different while she was doing it, so it my not being able to place her wasn't just becaue her hair was a different color and she was dressed for a New York winter instead of a Louisiana summer. 

It also turns out she's married to Michael Emerson, who is in the TV series Lost, which two facts I am probably the only aware human being in New York over the age of consent not to know.  I've never seen Lost.  But now I may have to.  Because, you know, these people can act.