In Shakespeare’s day women were not allowed on the stage. Dewy eyed young boys with (at least in theory) many of the qualities of young women—high voices, no beards, lissome figures, and coiffed and painted appropriately—played women’s parts. As far as we know this wasn’t necessarily intended to be comical or even sexually ambiguous, it was the custom. Having female performers on stage was seen as immoral, a holdover from the Catholic belief that all non-religious theatrical productions were blasphemous.
The Queen’s Company, a New York City all-female classical theatre company, presenting William Shakespeare’s As You like It, in Tribeca, has taken this custom and turned it on its head twice. All parts in its Shakespearean productions are played by women, male and female characters alike. And all possible sexually ambiguous and other sundry amusements that can be wrung out of this situation and out of the play in question—As You Like It-–provide a very amusing and delightful evening. The audience laughed and laughed to the point of weak gasps. All of us having a wonderful time. Billed as “sexy and playful,” the show delivered on its promise.
In fact, it is not long before this viewer forgot that she was watching women playing men, in some exotic sort of 20th century very vaguely Hispanic costumes and with beard, mustache and sideburns sketched about the face. She simply succumbed to the gorgeous language and irresistible laughter. The sex changes are the easier to forget because the actors flow with incredible ease from feminine styles for stance, facial expression, posturing—to the very opposite. Without a beat missing. Sometimes they use devices like a shawl or a belt to enhance their style; usually not. It works either way.
And the players’ voices are similarly fluid, flowing from high sweet maidenly tones to deep mellow or gruff manly intonations. I was stunned to realize that everyone was speaking extremely fast and crisply with just an edge of high British style theatrical intonation, and that I—almost—understood them. For sheer virtuosity this is hard to beat.
Director Rebecca Patterson, who founded the Queen’s Company, says women are especially good at evoking the nuances and intricacies of relationships and characters. “Male classical actors might be better at playing men. But women are better at playing human beings,” said Patterson. “And Shakespeare is about human beings.” (The Wall Street Journal).
It is a good thing, too, because if you were really trying to understand the gyrations of the plot you would throw up your hands in despair (no, not despair—exhaustion!). Here’s how Queen’s Company bills this production: “After a violent South American coup drives the rightful ruler into the forest of Arden, lovers, philosophers and fools flee the dangerous court in search of safety. Provocative and playful, Shakespeare’s dark comedy As You Like It explores the paradoxical powers of love, domination, revenge and forgiveness.”
Think: how often have you seen female actors depicting domination and revenge? Love and forgiveness, certainly. But the beauty of this type of gender-blind casting is that it greatly expands the range of roles that women may play, and the range of styles in which they play them. At no point in the evening did the action pause while the audience said to itself: “hmm, this is a woman playing a man playing a woman…! “ We just accepted what we were seeing and let it flow by.
I was irresistibly reminded of Kabuki, in which this situation is exactly the same with no women allowed on the stage. (Come to think of it, the time frame is pretty close also). With the aid of masks and kimono, and with exaggerated male and female gait, and dance, the actor’s role flows from male to female and back again.
I will just note some performances which really struck me as remarkable. The character of Rosalind really gives us an ideal heroine or hero. It hardly seems to make a difference, which. Described as “intelligent, beautiful, courageous, cheerful,” she is also impish, funny and discreetly sensuous. Orlando, de Boys, in love with Rosalind, is honorable, even noble; although his affections for the woman who is playing a man make him mildly comical, we can only honor him for his constancy. Touchstone, a Clown, is a powerfully funny and outrageous character who then in turn is upright and compelling. His presence in the play makes others react in a way that reveals their qualities. (“Literally a touchstone is a black stone used to assay the purity of precious metals.”)
If it isn’t obvious, I loved the play and urge all readers to attend while you can.
Photos by Bob Pileggi
The Queen’s Company will present William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, beginning May 4, and prior to an official opening May 5, at Walkerspace, 46 Walker Street, in Tribeca. For more information, go to the website.
Directed by Queen’s Company artistic director Rebecca Patterson, the limited engagement will continue through May 20. A post-show discussion with director Paterson will follow the May 13 performance.
The cast includes Tiffany Abercrombie, Elisabeth Ahrens, Virginia Baeta, Julia Campanelli, Amy Driesler, Sarah Hankins, Natalie Lebert, Heather MacDonald, Kristin Parker and Annie Paul.