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Beware the power of women

USF’s School of Theatre and Dance has taken the 1600s tragedy “Women Beware Women” and applied a modern twist by focusing more intently on the women within the play.

Written by the playwright Thomas Middleton, the Jacobean drama was originally performed exclusively with male actors.

For USF’s production, which opens Wednesday, the play’s director and assistant director for the USF theatre program, C. David Frankel, decided to pull a reversal by casting only four male actors in a cast of 19. Only one of the men plays a major character, and female actors fill some of the male roles.

Ryan Crowther, a senior majoring in theater arts who has worked on more than eight USF theater productions, said the change is exciting.

“I feel like it makes it more interesting,” he said. “It adds a totally new spin. The dynamic between the actors is different, and (the audience) is getting a different stage presence.”

Set in Florence during the Renaissance, the plot revolves around the corruption and exploitation that occurs under the Duke’s misogynistic rule. Bianca and Isabella are young, beautiful women preyed upon by manipulative men and the conniving widow, Livia.

Bianca is forced into having sexual relations with the Duke, while Isabella is coerced into an incestuous relationship with her uncle, Hippolito. The combination of adultery, incest and betrayal results in disaster.

Mary Spurlock, a senior majoring in theater who plays the Duke, studied Jacobean drama for a year in Theatre Honors before being cast in the male role. She said the 17th-century language in Middleton’s script presented a challenge for her, but the course made it easier for her to grasp the language and understand the context.

“As an actor, you sit and read the script, and you translate it into modern language so you understand it,” Spurlock said. “It is not so much learning about the language as it is about the innuendo behind what is said.”

As sound designer, Crowther said he also had to become familiar with Jacobean language so he could effectively incorporate sound effects and music to complement the dialogue.

“Making that translation for the audience was a challenge,” Crowther said. “For a show like this, there is so much spoken word and the typical audience member is not familiar with this kind of language,” Crowther said. “So you kind of want to ease them into it. A lot of sounds and music cues aid in the mood of the show and drive in some of the themes.”

Spurlock said many of the themes in “Women Beware Women” involve human nature and the conflict stems from gender roles in the Jacobean era. The play contains misogynistic undertones that are present in much of Middleton’s work.

Kelsey McCarter, a senior majoring in theater who plays Bianca, said that the piece is also Middleton’s commentary on the tendency of women to undermine each other.

“Women were simply wives and baby-makers,” McCarter said. “Men had all of these other outlets to pursue. Women had nothing to occupy their mind. So they could be a bit conniving.”

Spurlock said Middleton’s play often lacked a moral message or vision and this was typical of Jacobean tragedies, which were characterized by episodes of madness, murder and deceit.

However, McCarter said “Women Beware Women” could also be categorized as a dark comedy.

“There are very dark things that happen to the characters, but some scenes are comedic,” McCarter said. “I feel like the play brings on awkward laughter.”

Despite being written almost 400 years ago, Spurlock said the play contains truths about human nature that are relatable in modern society.

“People haven’t changed,” Spurlock said. “Their clothing has changed, and the way they speak has changed, but the way they act has not changed.”

“Women Beware Women” runs Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. in Theatre Arts Rehearsal building, room 120. Tickets are available at the College of the Arts box office. For more information, visit arts.usf.edu.