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Home :: Archive :: 2006 :: May ::
Seattle All-Female Hamlet
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.0459  Wednesday, 17 May 2006

From: 		David Evett <
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Date: 		Thursday, 11 May 2006 17:56:04 -0400
Subject: 17.0403 Seattle All-Female Hamlet
Comment: 	Re: SHK 17.0403 Seattle All-Female Hamlet

I'd be curious to know how much experience Bob Projansky has to support 
his categorical distaste for cross-gendered casting in Shakespeare. I 
agree that when undertaken for effect, it can be pretty disastrous. The 
Actors' Shakespeare Project, the professional Shakespeare company in 
Boston with which I am associated, has, I think, used it to advantage. 
Our motives are partly what Bob calls "desperation," and partly a desire 
to give women opportunities to perform. Our repertory company has 14 
members, of whom 6 are women; they range in age from 30 to 50-something. 
Our Equity agreement calls for 7-9 contracts per show. We do 3 
productions a year; the rule of thumb is that everybody gets roles in 2 
shows. That means that most productions have to find roles for 4 women, 
of whom only 1 or 2 are suitable for characters such as Helena or 
Cordelia. They are all gifted, experienced, intelligent, inventive 
performers, however, and without them the company, as a company, would 
not exist.

For the most part, we have taken advantage of modern-dress costuming and 
contemporary sexual politics to cast women in many of the parts 
traditionally assigned to middle-aged men with the early modern 
equivalent of managerial responsibilities--Paula Plum (currently a very 
effective Countess in AWW) as the Provost in MM, Paula Langton (a 
powerful Isabella and Regan) as Lord Rivers in R3, Jennie Israel (deeply 
sympathetic as Queen Elizabeth and Helena, and a fine, complex Goneril) 
as a Brunnhildesque all-purpose conspirator and warrior in JC. Note that 
gender per se is not an issue in any of these roles except in the battle 
scenes of JC, where Jennie proved to move as well as most of the men. A 
few of our more literal and/or  traditional spectators were briefly 
confused or briefly disturbed by the choices, but the general reception 
has been approval; I have talked to no one of wide experience and 
seasoned judgment who thought we would have been better served by men of 
equivalent skill.

A couple of performances have gone further, and developed the gender 
shift to enrich the play. In our inaugural show, Marya Lowry (a moving 
Portia to her real-life husband's Brutus, and the most dizzyingly 
infatuated Olivia of the dozen or 15 I've seen) made Birmingham the very 
model of the corporate climber. She has a remarkably rich and subtle 
voice, and both her demagoguery when appealing to the citizens and her 
complaint after Richard's rejection of her service were elegant and 
persuasive. In this instance, her sex gave an extra dimension to her 
unwillingness to murder the princes, and imparted exceptional depth to 
the play's focus on distorted, destructive family relationships.

In our recent TN, two young actresses from the Boston University theater 
program alternated as Fabian. The arrangement established the 
opportunity for some interesting non-textual play with Sir Andrew-- 
maybe a chance to pick him up on the rebound, after their collusion in 
the gulling of Malvolio. We chose not to push this very far, but it was 
there for anybody sensitive enough to see it, and a made a nice 
embellishment for people familiar with the play.

In the current production of AWW, Roberta Steinbach plays both LaFew 
and the Widow (I had not thought we could bring off the final scene, in 
which both appear, but a set that unobtrusive entrances and exits all 
around its perimeter allows it to work). Her relationship with our 
Parolles, Allyn Burrows, who is somewhat younger than she, very good 
looking, charming, finally rather helpless, has subtle but unmistakable 
sexual under- and overtones; it supplies effective countermusic not only 
to Helena and Bertram, but also to the more overtly but not more 
effectively nurturing relationship between the Countess and Helena. This 
is remarkably rich high social comedy. Our audiences, including the 
local critics, have seen this performance as fully validating our 
decision when the company was established to do cross-gender casting.

David Evett

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