Get local news delivered straight to your phone
Support City Paper!
Let us hope Tim Burton is done with remakes now. The animator-turned-Halloween auteur has in the 21st century unmemorably revised Planet of the Apes, Willy Wonka, and Alice in Wonderland. His adaptations work the best when they take on material that hasn’t already been mined successfully for the movies: Sweeney Todd; the gothed-out 1989 Batman and its sequel; the perennially underrated Sleepy Hollow. Ever wonder what he’d do with a moralizing 17th-century revenge tragedy written by a contemporary of Shakespeare? Me neither, but Constellation artistic director Allison Arkell Stockman has pressed ahead with a Burton-inspired take on Thomas Middleton’s bloody, Byzantine anti-lust tract Women Seeking Women, using Jesse Berger’s 2008 gloss on Middleton’s text, believed to date from the 1620s. The result plays to all of Stockman’s troupe’s strengths: a lively ensemble; baroque, arresting sets and costumes by company designers A.J. Guban and Kendra Rai, respectively; bold original music, by Jesse Terrill (it’s very evocative of Danny Elfman’s scores for all those Burton flicks); and bracing physicality, in the Ashley Ivey–choreographed dance scenes and a crisply executed saber duel by fight director Matthew Wilson. The production also benefits from—I’m not sure how else to put this—a cultivated sense of cruelty. Perhaps that’s why Brian Hemmingsen once again stands so tall though a gifted company surrounds him. As the predatory Duke of Florence, he plucks for himself a young bride in Bianca (Caley Milliken), a noblewoman already secretly married to a commoner, Leantio (sturdy Thomas Keegan). While the other characters must cave to treachery in their own bad time, Hemmingsen’s Duke is introduced to us as a seducer whose corruption is already complete. His clear intentions lend the show desperately needed ballast as it follows two other couples beside the Duke-Bianio-Leantio triangle. Indeed, the plot is as jagged and changeable as Guban’s surprise-filled set, whose only right angles are in the tiles on the floor. At one point, Stockman has two characters sit and play chess while the scene’s two principals conduct their business downstage—the material is that, well, stagey. So it’s of a piece, then, that Rai gives the show’s two cuckolds, Keegan and Jonathan Church, bisected costumes. Keegan sports a half-black, half-gray suit, while Church wears a half-vest/half-jacket over his flared orange shirt. (Two Face, the Batman villain who dressed like this, didn’t break into the movies until after Burton had moved on.) Church’s character, Hippolito, is carrying on a secret romance with a young woman who might be his niece, and is spoken for in any case. She’s played by a game Katy Carkuff, who sends up the bride-as-merch idea in a funny scene where the fop to whom she’s been promised inspects her for flaws as a rancher would a cow. If the whole thing ends up feeling accomplished but cold, like a lot of Constellation shows—and like a lot a Burton movies—we can find solace in the words of Middleton’s speculative “Timon of Athens” co-scribe, from Sonnet 155:
For every “Scissorhands,” there needs too mustBe a “Mars Attacks!”; for every “Big Fish”A “Planet of the Apes” that evenHelena Bonham Carter in monkeyMakeup cannot save.