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Gallaudet University: Eastman Studio Theatre
Remaining Performances (tickets available here):
Tuesday, July 14 at 6 p.m. Thursday, July 16 at 6:15 p.m. Friday, July 17 at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, July 19 at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, July 25 at 8:30 p.m.
They say: Two men, one woman: a recipe for disaster? Add a twist – she’s dead (but what a body!). Mix with rebellion, lust, love, bloodshed and a ghost. Best served cold. A play still cooking up trouble after four hundred years.
Two things stuck out to me as I read the DC Metro Theatre Arts preview of Cold As Death: The Lady and the Tyrant while waiting for its opening performance to begin. Fist was Guillotine Theatre Artistic Director Catherine Aselford’s statement that “people were less repressed in the early 1600’s.” Nothing stings modern, enlightened ears quite like the suggestion that our ancestors had fewer hangups than we do about certain subjects.
Second was the original censor’s note on the only surviving copy of what’s usually called The Second Maiden’s Tragedy, a neglected 1611 work by (probably) Thomas Middleton, reworked and greatly condensed here by playwright Monique LaForce. The note is a curt declaration that the plays seems to be untitled but is approved for public performance. Yes, a play whose centerpiece is a king’s necrophilic passion and which also includes several helpings of murder, suicide, obsessive lust, and, of course, grave-robbing, elicited little more than a shrug from its Jacobean censor. Less repressed indeed!
The worldview of Middleton and his contemporaries, squinting toward enlightenment rationalism but still haunted by medieval spirituality, is deeply fascinating. Maybe that’s why I was disappointed with the pains this production took to declare its modern relevance. The choice of heavy metal mixed with classical symphonic pieces as incidental music sets the right mood, but every other import from recent cultural history is a distraction.
Take, for instance, Angela Kay Pirko’s steampunkish take on Clarissa, a character LaForce has blended from bit roles in the original text. She’s clearly having a grand time, but the exaggerated sexuality and sadism of her performance, along with the presence of modern weaponry, only serve to hammer home ideas that are already clear from the script. Perhaps more damaging is that such ostentatious, genre-flick villainy makes heroes Govianus (Dane Petersen) and the titular Lady (Cate Brewer) seem totally dull by comparison.
The most compelling performances by far are Nello DiBlasio as The Tyrant, who seizes power at the start of the play, and Terence Aselford as Helvetius, who begins as a traitor hoping to pimp his daughter out to the usurper but later has a change of heart. But there’s a big hiccup here. In the opening night performance, DiBlasio was using a script the whole time. There was a quick pre-show note about this, that it was “all part of the fun” and that other actors would take on the role of the Tyrant in later performances, but this seems to have been some kind of behind-the-scenes quick fix. There’s no actor but DiBlasio listed as the Tyrant in the program, and it’s clearly not any kind of theatrical conceit; DiBlasio, though he plays the villain with great relish, was simply toting a script around the whole time, as least awkwardly as he could manage.
But while Cold as Death obviously isn’t as polished as it ought to be, there are worse ways to spend a brisk hour-and-change, and worse introductions to Jacobean drama if you’re among the uninitiated. Centuries later, Middelton, Webster, Marston, and their fellows are still pretty fringe.
See it if: You’ll see anything in which corpses play a key role.
Skip it if: You’d rather pretend that cemeteries are just dog parks and/or jogging locales that have lots of weird statues for some reason.