Encore Michigan

Williamston’s 17th century ‘Our Lady of Poison’ incredibly timely for 2018 #metoo

Review February 09, 2018 David Kiley

WILLIAMSTON, Mich.–Leave it to playwright Joe Zettelmeier to stumble on to a non-fiction story from 17th century Rome that perfectly fits the national dialogue today.

Our Lady of Poison, now being performed at The Williamston Theatre, is about the true story of a single woman, Giulia Tofana, an apothecary (played by Janet Haley), and her daughter, Girolama Spera (Dani Cochrane), who have a special practice going on. Having poisoned her own husband and son-in-law to dole out comeuppance for bad behavior, they have become known to women in the know for helping them do away with their abusive husbands.

As their latest customer, Daniella Presti (played by Maeyson Menzel) says about being a woman in 1659 Rome, “A woman can only be a wife, a nun, whore or a widow.” The first can be impossible of you are getting abused and beat up by your husband. The second..well…just isn’t for everyone. Ditto the third choice. So, widowhood looks better than all three, and can be justified morally in the name of vengeance.

Our Lady of Poison is a bit talky at first, and I wondered if Zettelmeier and director Shannon Ferrante were going to leave the best bits of this yarn on the floor and not take us by the throat. I shouldn’t have worried. After getting the exposition of characters and story out of the way, we come to find out that Girolama’s motivations for wanting to get rid of her husband were complicated. And so is her complicity with her mother who seems to be much more contemptuous of men, even while she remains very popular with the opposite sex and likes the attention. We also come to find that Daniella is not quite what she seems.

When Girolama has her moments of remorse and hesitation about the killings, and warmly remembering the childhood friend who became her husband, we can’t help thinking about the women who have come forward on behalf of men in recent weeks and months cautioning the public about condemning a man for merely being a bad date. When, I wondered did Zettelmeier finish writing? A week ago? It feels that timely.

Haley is an inspired choice for Giulia. An accomplished Shakespearean actress, Haley’s vocal cadence of the dialogue, spoken in English instead of Italian obviously, feels just right for the period. She has natural beauty and strength that comes in handy to play this role, and at the end of the play to reach the climax of the story. Cochrane, too, is excellent as the very conflicted Girolama. Confident one moment and in vulnerable or in pieces the next, her scars are many and Cochrane knows just how to make them jump off her skin. Ms. Menzel has a tough chore in keeping up with the craft of her co-stars. A theater major at Michigan State, I am not sure why Zettelmeier wrote Daniella so young. Ms. Menzel not only has a huge challenge holding her own with Haley and Cochrane, she seems a bit modern, and physically looks like she could play 14 instead of the 20 year old she inhabits here.

Fortunately, the script and Ferrante’s direction holds this compelling story together, and the trio work together very well as a team. Kirk Donner’s scenic design is minimal but works to convey old Rome. Costumes by Karen Kangas-Preston and Julia Garlotte’s sound design are quite good, with sound drop-ins nicely conveying, for example, throngs of people we don’t see.

The lovely thing about history–of non-fiction stories–is that looking back reminds us of how little we have progressed over the centuries. It’s humbling. The ugly, oafish, brutish men of 17th century Rome are alive and well in 2018 America at the highest levels of power. And women are conflicted today in how to deal with them just as they were then. The play runs 90 minutes without intermission and is highly recommended.

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Week of 2/19/2018

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