Monday, October 17, 2016

Women on Shakespeare: Mairin Lee on She Stoops to Conquer

Since most Shakespearean casts are male-heavy and even male-only, coverage tends to focus on men who create the work. Let's balance that out! This is the second season of my interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shakespeare and related work in New York City.

This autumn, the Actor's Company Theatre (TACT) revives She Stoops to Conquer. Written in 1771, Oliver Goldsmith's comedy has Kate Hardcastle impersonate a servant to learn the true personality of her beloved. Mairin Lee, an actor whose classical resume includes ACT and the McCarter, takes the title role in TACT's staging. I emailed with Ms. Lee about Kate, the play, and its relationship to Shakespeare.

Let’s start with Goldsmith and She Stoops to Conquer. What do you love in this play?

I love this play because it’s tremendously fun. The characters do outrageous things to get what they want, but their deepest hopes are real and recognizable. Kate dreams of true love. She commits whole-heartedly to that journey and takes incredible risks along the way. Each character has funny whims and eccentricities, and they’re all genuinely fighting for something.

Why it’s worth reviving in 2016?

Aside from the fact that it’s super funny, it’s stayed relevant. Goldsmith wrote it hundreds of years ago, but it feels very modern. There’s something recognizable in the familial dynamics of the Hardcastles; the troubles of wooing a mate; dissembling to further your cause. These are eternal questions: how do I find love? how do I balance loyalty to my family but also exercise my own freedom? how do I overcome obstacles?

What have you discovered about Kate Hardcastle?

Kate is wonderfully plucky, brave, funny, and sweet. She’s intuitive and smart and she cares deeply for her family. Even when she expresses uncertainty, Scott has encouraged me to find a positive spin. I love that approach because it shows how game she is; how much delight she finds in challenges. I think Kate’s an avid reader; she absolutely devours romance novels. And she is the heroine in her own story. Every obstacle is an opportunity for something extraordinary to happen.

What are the challenges in bringing her to life?

The biggest challenge has been finding Kate in our particular style. There are many ways this play can be presented. It could support very broad comedy, but we wanted to keep the characters as real as possible. And yet Kate makes some wild decisions. So I’ve been discovering how to balance that; how to stay grounded and real while also committing to the play’s crazy twists and turns.

What does her choice of disguises say about her and her assumptions about servants?

We have to remember that it’s not exactly her idea. Mr. Marlow gets so nervous around upper-class women that he can barely speak. He's more forward with women of a lower class. The first time they meet, he can't even look her in the face! Then, when she changes from her finery into a plainer dress, he doesn't recognize her and asks if she's a barmaid. She takes the idea and runs with it, because it’s the only way she’s going to get to know him better.

So it’s more about Marlow’s assumptions of lower class women. Kate is essentially herself, just in a different dress and using a different dialect. This perhaps gives her permission to flirt with him a little more than she normally would, but she doesn’t act wholly out of character. I actually think she’s quite egalitarian and feminist.

What links have you found between Kate Hardcastle and Shakespeare’s romantic heroines?

There are lots of parallels to be drawn here! Kate has some power at the top of the play — her father says, “I will never control your choice” — but she creates even more agency for herself. Her father facilitates the introduction with Marlow, but she takes the courtship into her own hands. Many of Shakespeare’s heroines have — or devise — agency in their lives and romantic endeavors. We see characters like Juliet and Desdemona explicitly go against their fathers' wishes. In the tragedies, of course, that doesn’t always work out well. But we do get happy endings for others, like Rosalind and Viola.

Lee (r) with John Rothman
As a woman in 1773, what could Kate do or say that they couldn’t?

1773 was during the birth of the modern marriage. Love was becoming a deciding factor. If Kate didn’t like Marlow, it would have been within her power to turn him down. This reflects a greater cultural shift in the idea of marriage, and is different from some of the ultimatums laid down in Shakespeare’s plays.

Looking more broadly the play, how does Goldsmith portray women in She Stoops, especially with regard to class?

This is interesting, because our production has cut the female servants. We’re doing the play with eight actors, and Scott figured out how to retain the plot without most of the smaller roles. So we only have Kate, Constance, and Mrs. Hardcastle, who are upper class, and Kate’s barmaid character, who is lower class. As I mentioned, Kate becomes the barmaid so that Marlow can act more freely. As the barmaid, she’s not as proper as she usually is, but she doesn’t do anything completely out of character. The differences are that she uses another dialect (“the true bar cant”) and, in our production, a more free physicality.

I think the question we’re getting at here is — why does Marlow act one way around upper-class women and another around lower-class women? What is Goldsmith saying about the fact that Marlow treats Kate differently depending on what she’s wearing and how she’s speaking? I have a sense that he's poking fun at Marlow, and perhaps using him to draw attention to the folly of the class system itself.

The answer will also differ depending on how Marlow’s played. Jeremy Beck is not only one of funniest actors I’ve worked with, but he also gives Marlow moments of such vulnerability and tenderness. I think the audience can really see why Kate falls in love with him.

Looking at your website, you’ve got plenty of experience in classical drama. How do you grapple with the ingrained sexism of those pre-modern plays?

Aha. While it’s no doubt important to look at the greater themes of these plays, my way in is always through the character. My first obligation is to her and to see the world through her eyes. I have some friends who ask, "Why do you want to do Shakespeare? Your characters usually end up in a puddle of tears! The world is so stacked against them!" And to that I say, YES. Look at all the obstacles in her path. Now: how does she handle them? What can we learn from her? How does Ophelia feel about being told what to do by her brother, her father, her king, and her boyfriend? How does each scene push Lady Macbeth closer and closer to madness?

Lee as Ophelia
in PA Shakespeare Company's Hamlet
That’s what’s fun for an actor. To figure out how a particular character overcomes — or doesn’t — what’s laid before her. So in the moment, the question doesn’t feel like how do I, Mairin, deal with the ingrained sexism of a play written three hundred years ago. Playwrights weren’t necessarily imagining a world where everything was fair and equal. They were showing it as it was, and it was often cruel and messy and unfair. There is sexism in the world of these plays because it was a more sexist world back then. That doesn't justify it or make it okay. I believe the best playwrights were able to subvert some of that sexism by endowing their women with enough creativity or bravery to battle it. First and foremost, they see their characters as human. And that's how I want to see them too.

Do you have any particular Shakespearean roles you’d love to perform?

Juliet has always been at the top of the list. R&J was the first the first play I ever saw, and it blew my world open. Her language is just heavenly. I think she’s one of Shakespeare’s smartest characters. Her heart is so big, and her imagination is astonishing.

I’d love to do Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost and Olivia in Twelfth Night. Or any of the women in Antony and Cleopatra — I played Iras and Octavia in a production at the McCarter a few years ago, and I fell in love with it. Just thinking about all these plays makes me happy and excited!

Any dream-roles traditionally played by men?

I got to play Mercutio this summer in an Off-Broadway production with the Wheelhouse Theatre, and I loved it. I’d play him again in a heartbeat. He’s amazing. There’s a thousand different ways to go. He’s so many things in one — a braggart, a fighter, a clown, a poet. He could be super-masculine or totally androgynous. At times there’s something almost otherworldly about him. I was heartbroken when we closed; I wanted to keep exploring and playing and finding new things. I’ve thought at various times about other male characters — maybe Hal, maybe Orsino, maybe Horatio — but Mercutio really stole my heart.


TACT's She Stoops to Conquer runs from October 4 to November 5 at Theatre Row. Tickets are $65.


photo #2  Marielle Solan

photo #3  Lee A. Butz

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Women on Shakespeare: Patricia McGregor on directing Hamlet

Since most Shakespearean casts are male-heavy and even male-only, coverage tends to focus on men who create the work. Let's balance that out! This is the second season of my interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shakespeare and related work in New York City.

Twice every season, the Public Theater's Mobile Unit tours NYC neighborhoods with stagings of classic plays. The company is about to conclude its all-boro tour of Hamlet with a brief run at its home on Lafayette Street. Half of the sixteen artists credited are women, including three actors, the fight choreographer, and the director, Patricia McGregor. Earlier this week, I emailed with the show's Ophelia, and now I'm thrilled to listen to Ms. McGregor.


Let’s put gender aside for a moment, and just talk Hamlet. What have you found most fascinating about the play?

What I found most fascinating was tracking how the revelation of injustice, in this case the murder of Hamlet's father, is the inciting incident that transforms a grieving young man who would rather shun public life into a man who sees the corrupt cracks in a whole system and is hell-bent on revenge. I find the soliloquies where Hamlet lets the audience into a very intimate debate on what to do next and reveals his rage, vulnerability, and confusion to be very moving and timely. This is especially true in many of the places the Mobile tour travels where folks in the audience are often wrestling with how to seek justice in an unjust world.

What knots did the playwright leave for you and your company to untangle?

Shakespeare left us to untangle the steps in [Hamlet's] transformation and the moments when he, intentionally or not, inflicts his own violence in the name of avenging a murder. There is also a style and technical challenge to untangle which is how to honor both the comedy and the tragedy in the play. We wanted to have the extremes of both be truthfully alive in the production. I was interested in how this production could be an examination, a warning and a call to action. How could we marry what is fundamental to the play with what seems urgent in our times so that the production can sit on a nerve.

Chukwudi Iwuji as Hamlet

Did you have preconceptions about Hamlet that got overturned in the rehearsal process?

Oskar Eustis recently came to a performance and told the actors that this production felt like a thriller. The rehearsal process overturned a preconception of just how fast and forward-footed we could make this piece while still honoring the moments of Hamlet's indecision and hesitation. The process revealed what a man of complex contradictions Hamlet is, eloquent and flawed, wise and damaged, enraged and in pain. An actor of Chukwudi Iwuji's excellence allowed us to mine the range and contemporary resonance of the journey. He was a gift. Each of the actors in the company made the work their own and made it sing in a fresh way.

What about the women you worked with?

[…] I loved working with Kristolyn Lloyd and Orlagh Cassidy on Ophelia and Gertrude. These roles can sometimes come off as thin or inauthentic. With Kristolyn we were able to create an Ophelia who has real spark, intelligence and soulfulness who also wrestles with the undertow of mental illness. She is caught as a woman wanting to express her individualism and personal power in a world where patriarchy still rules. By having her sing at the top of the show during our funeral prologue, we not only get to see a range of her emotions, but also the real connection between her and Hamlet before things go wrong. We get to see in her personal character and in their relationship a more modern and dimensional woman than I feel I often see with Ophelia.

And Orlagh Cassidy's Gertrude?

With Orlagh, we were able to mine the dangerous territory of a woman who allows the desire for comforts to turn a blind eye to things that her gut tells her are amiss. As a mother of a young son, it was important to me that there felt like a true love between Gertrude and Hamlet, but that we examine a woman who has chosen the privilege of blindness over truth seeking in a moment of crisis.

Kristolyn Lloyd & Jeffrey Omura
in Hamlet
Kristolyn told me about the challenges of Ophelia's mad scenes. How did you and she approach those mad scenes in rehearsal?

Working with our wonderful composer Imani Uzuri on Ophelia's vocal expression of grief and madness was key to unlocking something that felt very harrowing and real. The "mad scenes" often feel played at, but in rehearsal we created a wail that hits you in the gut. Creating her vocal compositions were important for her character revelation and for switching the tone of the piece. Her guttural singing and fall into madness remind us of the collateral damage stemming from the domino effect of the initial murder.

The smaller cast gives this Hamlet more gender parity than most. How do your role as the director affect the production’s depictions of women?

It was important to me that we pushed for more than just two women in the production. Casting the excellent Natalie Woolams-Torres allowed us to see other representations of women in the world. We get to witness Natalie inhabit the positions of strong secret service protector, charismatic childhood buddy, efficient messenger, and more. We could have easily cast that track as a male, but I'm so glad we did not. We actually auditioned women in three roles in addition to Ophelia and Gertrude. I am always looking for places where women and people of color not traditionally cast can make sense in my productions.

That's one more good reason to hire women to direct Shakespeare. I don't find many directors to interview for this series.

I'd note as you are focusing on women and Shakespeare that I have had so many examples of women directing Shakespeare that oddly men directing it used to seem strange to me. My first middle school theater teacher, as well as my high school program director, as well as the head of the department, dean and chair of my undergrad program, as well as the head of my grad program were all women. I had seen them all tango with the Bard. Early in my career I worked with Deborah Warner on Medea and got to watch her process and speak to her about directing Shakespeare. Also my mom is British and grew up making sets for these plays in school, so she is well-versed on the canon. I bring this up to say that for me there have not been the same barriers of not having seen women approach the work as some people have endured. There are women in my life who set a great example of standing toe to toe with the work and making it your own. I hope to be a women who can be this kind of example to those who come after me.

Chukwudi Iwuji as Hamlet
How does your identity as an African-American woman inform your vision?

In a time where violence targeting color and women are all-too-regular front-page topics, a play that looks at the murder of a king and the subsequence ripple effect leading to the collapse of a whole court sits on a nerve for me. It feels like it sits on a nerve for this country. The task of cutting the play down to Mobile Unit parameters seemed worthwhile for all the resonance I felt the play has with the crisis we are facing today.

Have the Mobile Unit’s audiences been enjoying the production?

I've only had the chance to see two Mobile Unit stops as I flew out to begin rehearsal for a play at the Guthrie just after the tour began. The audiences I witnessed were extremely engaged in both performances I was able to attend. I cannot wait to come back and see how the work has deepened.

How did you cut and revise the play to fit the Mobile Unit’s constraints?

The cut was done with the massive help from Jim Shapiro. I spoke with him and let him know what I wanted to focus on and what I wanted to let go of. I was also in conversations with Chuk early on about Hamlet’s journey, so we talked to Jim about suggestions. Then during rehearsal we made several additional cuts and one key restore of text. Jim and the whole cast were great collaborators on all these cuts and shifts and we all had the same goal of the most engaging, moving, and provocative show possible in under two hours.

Talking about Shakespeare more generally, what’s your perspective on his roles for women?

Shakespeare wrote some brilliant and inspiring women and also wrote some very problematic roles for and language about women. You can feel the male gaze at play in many of his pieces. Then again you have amazing representations of women like Paulina and Hermione in Winter's Tale. Paulina is fearless and braver than any of the men in the play, in speaking truth to power and standing up to injustice. Hermione is extraordinary in her grace and capacity for forgiveness. I feel these two women together represent an amazing aria of spectrum of womanhood. We can be strong as an ox, and as healing as any medicine in the world. I think Shakespeare's strength in depicting women is when he gives them language to speak their minds and they do it with intelligence, fire, and poetry.

What about his weaknesses?

His weakness is when he uses them as objects or objectives them. The thing I would have to really think about is any of the pieces that call for rape or major physical violence against women. I think there are ways in which those acts can be strangely glorified onstage. This troubles me. I'd have to do some hard thinking if I were to approach a Shakespeare play involving these pieces.

McGregor's production of The Winter's Tale
at California Shakespeare Theater
I read online that you directed The Winter's Tale. Have you done any other Shakespearean plays?

I'm directing Measure for Measure at the Old Globe this fall. I've directed Romeo and Juliet and acted in several other Shakespeare plays. I got into theater in 8th grade when I got asthma and happened to take a theater class where we read Midsummer's Night Dream. I loved it from the very beginning. It just made sense to me and I love the athleticism of the language and the wild range of characters in each piece.

Any dream-productions brewing in your head? What would be your first choice of his plays to direct?

I'd love another chance to look at Winter's Tale. I've also got a Tempest, Antony and Cleopatra, Macbeth, Twelfth Night and Midsummer's rolling around. Lear used to scare me as a play. I thought, what do I really understand about this journey? Then my elderly father came to live with me and I began to understand something about Lear. Shakespeare is so rich because it will grow and change with you as you grow and change. In that way, the text is always new and alive.


The Public's Mobile Unit stages Hamlet from Sept 19 to Oct 9 at the Public Theater in the Village. Tickets are $20.


headshot  Erik Pearson
photos #2 & 3  Joan Marcus
photo #4

Monday, September 12, 2016

Women on Shakespeare: Kristolyn Lloyd on Ophelia

Since most Shakespearean casts are male-heavy and even male-only, coverage tends to focus on men who create the work. Let's balance that out! This is the second season of my interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shakespeare and related work in New York City.

Twice every season, the Public Theater's Mobile Unit tours NYC neighborhoods with stagings of classic plays. The company is about to conclude its all-boro tour of Hamlet with a brief run at its home on Lafayette St. Kristolyn Lloyd plays the fair Ophelia, under the direction of Patricia MacGregor. I hope to email Ms. MacG later this week, but it's a pleasure to speak first with Ms. Lloyd, soon to make her Broadway debut in Dear Evan Hansen.


Let’s start with Ophelia. What's the biggest challenge of the role? What knots did the playwright leave for you to untangle?

Ophelia was a challenge from the first scene to the last. Her inner life feels so much more mysterious compared to Hamlet because she reveals so much less than he does. Her turmoil appears to occur after Hamlet tells her to go to a nunnery, breaking her heart. I had to approach that loss for her as a complete shock. Him rejecting her was not how she had hoped the scene would end. We don't know much of her past and therefore the audience has got to connect with her from the moment she's on stage. I think Patricia did a lovely job creating a specific world for the audience. From the moment the show starts, we get a sense of who this woman is to this world and who she is to Hamlet.

How do you envision her inner life over the arc of the play?

I saw her journey through the show initially through a play list of songs. Music has always been an important investigating tool for me when approaching a character. She seemed like a young woman with a very deep soul. So I started with artists like Fatai, India Arie, and Ledisi. She's deeply in love at the top of the show and these artists sing about that kind of love. As the plot thickens, I imagine that all she's aware of is her own pain, and would be confused by everyone's recent behavior. In the world we've created no one is filling this young woman in on any secret plots or plans. I was also inspired by hip and pop artist like Drake, Beyoncé, Ariana Grande, Florence & The Machine, and Sia. Her fall has to be enormous and heartbreaking. Music is about emotional extremes and there's always a song that can capture them.

How do you approach her mad scenes, and play them honestly? What links them to the sane woman earlier in the play?

Lloyd (r)
with Jeffrey Omura as Polonius
I found that her mad scenes are born out of isolation. The depth of sorrow over the loss of intimacy with the ones you love and counted on is universal. How is she motherless? When did that happen? I imagine she's got quite a depth and strength to her after losing a mother. Her brother leaves, her best friend and love of her life ignores her, verbally abuses her, and rejects her. She's the most alone she's ever felt and then her father is murdered. She doesn't even get to say goodbye. She's now lost all her life-lines. What would a person, who is trying to make sense of why this happened to her, be like by the time she takes her own life? I, sometimes reluctantly, have to put on that story every show and try to do right by her. It's her story.

This Hamlet has more gender parity than most, especially behind the scenes. How does that play into the production’s depictions of women?

Having such a heavy female presence brings in so much humanity. It's a three- to four-hour play, that's been cut down (quite well thanks to Patricia and Jim Shapiro) to an hour 40, and with a short process. We were very fortunate to have women who can multi-task, who care about the details, and manage the time so well. Patricia McGregor assembled a great group of artists! Our composer, Imani Uzuri, found music for the show that brings a beautiful thread of texture to the tone and atmosphere. We had a female movement coordinator, fight choreographer, vocal assistant, and stage management team. So when Patricia and I first talked about Ophelia we both agreed there was no room for a frail wilting flower. We have to root for her.

How have the local audiences been enjoying the Mobile Unit’s production?

I wanted audiences on the Mobile tour to simply connect with the story. I was so surprised and elated when we went to a women's shelter and they were so vocal. They knew lines, they showed their support for certain characters and disdain for others. They weren't shy and I have to admit it was a bit of a rush! Knowing that they are with you on your journey was comforting. They are generally for Ophelia, not against her, and they always seem so devastated when she loses it.

Talking about Shakespeare more generally, what’s your perspective on his roles for women?

Lloyd (r) with Christian DeMarais as Laertes
I feel a bit limited when it comes to speaking on whether or not William Shakespeare writes well for women. I don't presume to know anything that hasn't already been said. I think he writes well for the central characters. Always. Which in some case are women. When I think of Measure for Measure or Romeo and Juliet, I feel as though he has the highest regard for women who fight for their integrity. But you can't deny the absence of character context with other women in his plays like Desdemona or even Ophelia. I would dare to say there was just as much a double standard in Elizabethan days as is there is in today's writing. Women have always fought to be seen with more dimensions than society has given them permission be; in theatre, film, and television.

Directors tend to cast white men in Shakespeare, partly out of habit. What perspectives and insights do you bring to his plays, as an African-American and a woman?

As actors we are responsible for pushing ourselves to take more risk in our craft and also in life. So much of what makes a performance memorable is what the person playing role brings to it. Whether it's a more humorous outlook on it all, or one of struggle. Both bring color to the tapestry of life they bring out in a character. I found that my experience as a black woman was a Godsend when playing Ophelia. How does a black woman who is young and doing the best she can with what she's been given respond to the turmoil we see her go through? The performer's perspective of these present circumstances is what the character is filtered through and that's what the audience is looking forward to being immersed in.

What other Shakespearean roles have you done?

So far I have played Juliet, Ophelia, and Hamlet. Yes, Hamlet.

I love cross-gender casting! Any other parts of his that you’d love to play?

I would love to do Juliet again or perhaps a comedy! I wouldn't be upset if I was cast as Helena in Midsummer.

I'll look forward to your Ophelia. Break a leg, and thanks for speaking with me!

The Public's Mobile Unit stages Hamlet from Sept 19 to Oct 9 at the Public Theater in the Village. Tickets are $20.


headshot  Cathryn Farnsworth
photos #2 & 3  Joan Marcus

Monday, July 25, 2016

Women on Shakespeare: Ismenia Mendes on Cressida

Since most Shakespearean casts are male-heavy (and some are male-only), coverage tends to focus on men who create the work. Let's balance that out! This is #13 in my interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shak and related work in New York.

This summer, Ismenia Mendes stars in Troilus and Cressida at the Public Theater's free Shakespeare in the Park. Our conversation about Much Ado's Hero (who she played at the same venue in Summer '14) inspired me to start this series, so I'm particularly thrilled to email with her about her return visit to the Delacorte, and how her perspective on Shakespeare's women has changed in two years.


It's a pleasure to talk with you again, Ismenia! Let’s start with your role as Cressida. She’s not as well-known as most of Shakespeare’s heroines. What have you discovered about her that you find fascinating? What are her finest qualities, and her worst ones? What knots did the playwright leave for you to untangle?

I actually had not read this play until auditioning for it. Maybe it was that I read it at 2 a.m. but my first thought after reading it was, “Holy shit, this woman belongs to the 21st century.” She is so unbelievably contemporary. She’s crude, smart, sexy, cynical (or tries to be) — and her story is one of Shakespeare’s most relevant to today’s culture of misogyny. This is also a play where Shakespeare poses a lot of problems/questions and doesn’t really give you many answers. You’re pretty much on your own — luckily this play in particular just begs interpretation. I’m actually grateful that Cressida is played so seldom. It’s really given me the opportunity to define her for myself.

Cressida shows a very different spirit than most of Shak’s lovers, maybe one more open to interpretation. How would you describe her relationships with her uncle, Troilus, and Diomedes? How do you envision her inner life over the arc of the play?

Here’s the thing. Cressida’s dad defected to the Greek side (She’s a Trojan) years ago and she has basically been raised by her very dirty, very outspoken, and very bawdy uncle. As a result, you have a woman who is equally bawdy, equally outspoken and easily the smartest person in every scene. She has no real social standing, which gives her a lot more freedom than most of Shakespeare’s other heroines — and she uses that freedom. She is acutely self-aware, but also struggling to define herself in this very masculine world. I feel like her uncle has raised her with all of these warnings about men, and so she tries to project this cynical, hardened façade, but is actually this very innocent, intelligent young woman struggling to find her place in the world, and in love.

Mendes as Cressida with John Glover (c)
and Andrew Burnap (l)
In Shakespeare’s era, “as false as Cressida” was a sexist cliché about women’s infidelity. How does her role in the story address that cliché? Is there room for its ironic subversion in modern times?

I actually believe that what Shakespeare has written is very much in defense of Cressida. And I honestly have some real difficulties understanding how the few productions that have been done of Troilus and Cressida have been so damning of her. The timing of this production is so perfect, what with the Brock Turner case and the conversation this country is having about our rape culture. Cressida is forced into an impossible decision — she does what she does to survive. She is in no way, the ‘inconstant woman.’

Can you tell us about the other women in T&C’s cast? You, Nneka Okafor, and Tala Ashe are a racially and culturally diverse trio, and (unlike Taming earlier this summer) the three of you are a minority gender-wise too. Do you think those identities play into the production’s depictions of women?

Absolutely. The women in this play all have one thing in common: they are consistently devalued and silenced. I think Dan purposefully cast only men in the ensemble. The women are so vastly outnumbered that there is this sense that they may, at any time, be swallowed whole. And I think, metaphorically, they are.

You’re working closely with John Glover again! How would you describe your chemistry together? What have you picked up from him here and in Much Ado? And how do Cressida and Pandarus mirror and distort Hero and her father?

John! Oh I could go on and on about my love for John Glover. He is a master of play. Sharing a stage with him is not only wickedly fun, but also immensely educational. He has an ease with the language that just floors me. Playing his daughter Hero, though, was a very different task from playing his niece Cressida. Mostly because Hero and Cressida are about as different as you can get. In Much Ado you have a dutiful, sweet, almost repressive father-daughter relationship. In our production of Troilus and Cressida, Pandarus has all but raised Cressida, but not at all as a Hero. They behave as contemporaries (whether or not that may be the reality) — they mock and tease each other mercilessly, constantly trying to one-up each other.

Mendes as Hero with Lily Rabe's Beatrice
in 2014's Much Ado
In our conversation about Much Ado, you mentioned that the Delacorte’s environment & thrust stage forced you to be “smarter & more aware” of your acting choices. What strategies will you revisit this time around? Anything you’ll do differently?

My vocal work in this show is very different. Hero was in many ways a kind of woman-child. Cressida is a woman in every regard. She is a survivor and a force of nature. Because of this my pre show vocal warm-ups have changed. There is also the difference of period vs. contemporary costumes. I have a lot more freedom in this production. It is so nice not having to speak Shakespeare in a corset.

Also last time around, you mentioned wanting to play Juliet and Perdita. Have you had those chances yet? or any other Shakespearean or classical roles you’ve played in the last two years? Do you have any Shakespearean dream-roles traditionally played by men?

I’ve got the Cressida bug. Now, instead of Juliet and Perdita, I’m hankering to play Rosalind and Lady M. I'm entering a period in my life where the appeal of playing teenagers has pretty much disappeared.


The Public Theater's free Shakespeare in the Park stages Troilus and Cressida from July 19 to August 14 at the Delacorte in Central Park. Tickets are free.


headshot  Hannah Sherman
photos #2 & 3  Joan Marcus

Friday, July 22, 2016

Women on Shakespeare: Rachel Pickup as Portia

Since most Shakespearean casts are male-heavy (and some are male-only), coverage tends to focus on men who create the work. Let's balance that out! This is #12 in my interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shak and related work in New York.

The Lincoln Center Festival hosts Shakespeare's Globe on another visit to Manhattan. The show's Merchant of Venice, and Rachel Pickup plays Portia to Jonathan Pryce's Shylock. She's an English actress who spent a season with the RSC, and several more years around the UK, before she moved to America. Her shrewd Goneril, plus chemistry with her Regan (Bianca Amato), made her stand out in '14's Lear at Theatre for a New Audience. I emailed with Rachel about the complexities and challenges of Portia.

Thanks for talking with me, Rachel. In rehearsing and playing Portia in London and New York, what have you discovered about her?

I confess I had never really thought much about The Merchant of Venice before I came to do it last year, so my preconception about Portia was probably the same as many people’s. I knew she said, “The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,” so I had assumed she herself was full of mercy. If I am honest I think I thought she was pure goodness. Foolish of me, as Shakespeare is never so simplistic, but I thought she was the romantic lovely princess. She is not. She has many of those ‘young lover’ qualities: intelligence, passion, sometimes compassion, selfishness, (often selfishness), but also entitlement, confidence sometimes even bordering on arrogance. That has surprised me.

But the most fascinating thing has been how someone [who] is able to say that speech about mercy can then behave in quite a cruel way. However you justify the cruelty, she is nevertheless distinctly lacking in mercy in the way she treats Shylock and Jessica and two of her suitors. She is certainly not wholly lovely in how she behaves, and that has been a fascinating journey of discovery. I have a whole other play going on in my head when myself and Nerissa return from the court scene to Belmont. But the play ends where it ends so that sequel is for another time.

What are Portia's finest qualities, and her worst ones?

She is super-smart and passionate, and magnificently brave and strong, and ahead of her time, and she has the capacity to learn. But she is capable of cruelty, she is selfish, and, most devastatingly, she is a racist. She is a complex woman. She is a flawed human being. She is a product of her time, her environment, so alas, she is, frankly, racist. It has been hard to embrace that, but it is important to, especially because of these times that we are living in. It is sadly far too current!

What knots did the playwright leave for you to untangle?

Many! So many little plot details which we as a company had to address when we were first going thru the play. Simple things like, how long have I been going through the casket trial? Do I know which casket contains my picture? When did I meet Bassanio and, if we both fell in love at first sight, why did we not get together when my father was alive? Then of course myself and Nerissa dressing up as men and going to court. How do we do that in the time allotted? And get back to Belmont so fast? How is it that my cousin happens to be the Doctor of Law expected in court, and that I can be instructed in the ways of the law in the short time before travelling to Venice? All of these things and so many more. I could go on and on — and I think you almost always can in Shakespeare. We can find justification for all of the these things though, and it is vital that we as a company come to an agreement on why we do what we do and when.

Do you think an audience gets all that thought you've put in?

Oftentimes an audience won’t even consider these problems. The brilliance of Shakespeare is the way he forces you to jump in and just — believe! It is like how we are when we are children. There is a fairy tale element to this play — to many of his [plays] — and so long as we know why we are doing what we are doing, I think an audience will. Conviction is all!

Merchant addresses religion in volatile ways, and the show’s effect depends heavily on Portia’s argument in court. What are your thoughts on her argument about mercy?

I answered that to some degree in my first question but to further it. She is of course utterly brilliant in what she says. What you realise, when you really listen to the whole trial scene many times, is that the Doge and everyone else keeps saying to Shylock, “have mercy”, “everyone expects mercy”. But it is an assumption we all make, that a person would be merciful — nobody actually stops to say why? Portia is astounded by the fact that Shylock has to actually ask the question, “On what compulsion must I [be merciful], tell me that?” Of course one should not have to ask, but he does, so she simply answers. It starts as a simple answer, but Shylock does not respond nor does he seem convinced, so she is forced to qualify her initial simple answer and expand on it. And I think the shock of having to explain this basic human concept of mercy allows her to get somewhat carried away — not entirely, she has her feet on the ground — but I think during that speech Portia has a deep, new learning herself. [sic]

What does she learn?

She grows up somewhat in the mercy speech. She herself has not always been merciful, she has not always been kind, she has never been outside of her cloistered and “golden” palace of Belmont and has not known the world. Now here she is in the ugly real world of Venice and it is a coming-of-age.

What about her ‘winning’ argument about flesh but no blood?

The most brilliant move a lawyer could come up with - and she does so in the moment — in our production anyway! It is genius and spot on! I love her for it! I love it!

By contrast, the casket scenes make Portia silent, but she still controls the situation. How do you animate her silence and formal responses to her suitors?

I am interested that you think she controls the situation. In our production she does not. We felt that it was more dramatic for us not to know which casket contained which “prize” so we are at the ‘mercy’ of fate in those scenes and she does not control it. She prays to the Gods! And she wishes she could “teach Bassanio how to choose right” but alas she is one who also obeys the law and her father’s will so she will not ever cheat or lie or “be foresworn”!

I just need to listen to the others on stage. Morocco and Aragon, our actors, are so brilliant and so 'in' it that I don’t need to think about how I animate anything. I listen to what they are saying and I react accordingly, as do Nerissa and Balthazar. You should never really have to think about how you are animating a scene if you are listening — words or no words.

How does she make her choice (for Bassanio)?

We discussed Bassanio’s and my backstory and decided we had met a few months ago at one of Belmont’s many balls—we had barely spoken but we fell in love. Again, there are fairy tale elements but you can fall in love at first sight, people do all the time so… it was not a choice is what I am saying, we were ‘meant to be’! I like to believe in that!

Talking about Shakespeare more generally, what’s your perspective on his roles for women?

There are not enough of them, that is for sure. He writes many wonderful women though, and I love that for the most part they are strong. They are often the ones who sort out the problems, or take the risks. Juliet is way more interesting than Romeo, Portia is braver than Bassanio, Rosalind intensely more fabulous than Orlando, etc. etc. But, obvious to say, they are often second fiddle to the men. Where in Shakespeare are the Hamlets, the Lears, the many Richards or Henry’s or Iagos for the women? They are just so few and far between, however wonderful those that are there areHaving said that, the ones that are brilliant are truly majestically so, and I feel incredibly lucky to have played so many of them.

Are there any you don't like?

The only female semi-leading role that I find a little limp is Hero in Much Ado. She is a bit insipid, I am glad I was never offered that part.

Pickup as Goneril opposite Michael Pennington's Lear
at Theatre for a New Audience, 2014
Is there anything in Shakespeare's plays that’s beyond salvaging?

Interesting, never thought of it in that way? “salvaging”?!!? I don’t think so, no — not that I know every single play intimately, by any means. But he is so brilliant that even in some of the more flawed plays there are always moments/speeches that take your breath away. I think any good director who is excited by any given play will then do something with it to make it ‘salvageable’ as you say — or they will cut any of the dross — not a bad thing to do sometimes!

I mean anything that can never work onstage, no matter how ironically it's played.

I am not a fan of all the “Poor Tom” stuff in King Lear — it goes on for far too long. Many don’t agree with me of course, but I think it is impossible to sustain that for quite as long as Shakespeare writes it. I am afraid I tend to tune out! If I direct Lear, I will cut a lot of that!

Do you have any particular Shakespearean roles you’d still love to play? Any dream-roles traditionally played by men?

So many! All the obvious ones and sure — I always wanted to play Richard the 2nd and Hamlet and King Lear and Edmund and all those meaty parts. But as I get older I do tend to think let the men play the men and the women the women… perhaps that is very boring of me. If I were offered King Lear I would say yes in a heartbeat!


Shakespeare's Globe and Lincoln Center Festival's The Merchant of Venice runs from July 20 to 24 in Jazz at Lincoln Center. Tickets are $45-150.


headshot  Scott Marshall
photos #2 & 3  Manuel Harlan
photo #4  Carol Rosegg

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Women on Shakespeare: Anwen Darcy as Beatrice & Mercutio

Since most Shakespearean casts are male-heavy (and some are male-only), coverage tends to focus on men who create the work. Let's balance that out! This is #11 in my interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shak and related work.

Nearly out on the streets a few years ago, Shakespeare in the Parking Lot has instead expanded to a 'second stage' in midtown, with Bryant Park Presents. The company has recast Anwen Darcy as Beatrice in its Much Ado About Nothing, after her acclaimed turn as Mercutio last summer. I emailed with Anwen about these two essentially Shakespearean characters.

Let’s start with your role in Much Ado. What makes Beatrice such a fully-realized character onstage?

Beatrice is one of Shakespeare's great women due to the fact that she's flawed. It's what makes her impossibly complicated and wonderful to play. She is, of course, witty and rambunctious and full of life. But she also has this corrosive edge to her, particularly in regards to Benedick. Add to that some of the best dialogue Shakespeare has ever written, and you have a woman who is more modern than most female parts written in the last 20 years.

Corrosive how?

You look at their first scene together, when he arrives back from the war, and she absolutely cannot sit on her disdain and pain at seeing him again. Of course, she also can't not talk to him, partly because she wants to humiliate him and partly because she wants his attention. That push and pull is fascinating, and it lends itself to be played thousands of different ways. You add in that she is hiding (very poorly, as the play lets you discover) a broken heart that still can't shake the breaker, and it all adds up to a fascinating starting place. Beatrice starts the show quite frosty, and I've found more you lean into how hard she is in the beginning, the more payoff you get at the end of the show.

I cannot tell you how satisfying that is, to just be allowed to be pissed off onstage without trying to qualify it. So often people try to soften women's anger onstage, to try and make sure you stay pretty and soft, and Beatrice is none of those things in the beginning of the show. She's just fine alone, but she knows she deserves more, and deserves to be loved for who she is without being changed. She's also had her heart stomped on (whether intentionally or not) by the only person she's ever deigned to show interest in, and Shakespeare lets her carry that. It doesn't go away once Benedick tells her he loves her—she distrusts him up until their final scene alone, when he tells her that he did challenge Claudio, and that he is actively choosing her over anyone else.

You've worked with your Benedick, McKey Carpenter, before. How does that help the onstage chemistry?

I'm exceptionally lucky in that not only have I worked with my Benedick before (this is our fifth show together) but I've also tackled Shakespearean barbs with him. McKey was the Tybalt to my Mercutio, so we have lots of practice hissing and spitting at each other. The difference is that this time we can let our affection and history with each other shine through.

I also think trust is a huge part of the wordplay of this show—because you have just have to unleash these torrents of dialogue at each other, you have to know that the other person is going to be there for you, both in scenes where you hate each other and the scenes where you love each other. The end of the wedding scene is a great example of this—Beatrice is finally fully unleashed, and she just has this righteous furious scream of mourning dialogue for Hero, for the death of men, for her inability to be of any help. Benedick has maybe five interjections in two pages, but he has to be there, in the scene, as fully committed as if the dialogue was bouncing back and forth. McKey's always there. You can't do one half of this show without the other.

McKay Carpenter & Anwen Darcy
as Benedick & Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing
What strategies do you have for the wordplay?

One of the tactics we have in our arsenal for the warm up is a speed-through of all our scenes together. A lot of what makes Benedick and Beatrice so delightful is the speed at which they think up these terrible and hilarious insults. So we make sure that we are sharp on our cues and know precisely when to come in, where to cut a glance to the audience, when to move. We've also been known to run lines jumping up and down or mock punching each other, but that's mostly just because we both enjoy hitting things.

I can tell you that the best way to nail the wordplay is a vocal warm-up (which is important) or bouncing a tennis ball back and forth while we run lines to keep up a pace (very much not important or particularly helpful). But at the end of the day you need just need the right partner, otherwise you can never let go and just let the words guide you. 

Let’s talk about Beatrice & Hero. What have you discovered about their relationship?

Beatrice and Hero's relationship is the engine of the play. To me, Hero is Beatrice's heart—there is nothing in the world she wants more than Hero's happiness. You see it when Claudio and Hero get engaged—Beatrice is so excited she is answering for them, because she fully believes that her beloved cousin got her happy ending, and that's enough for her. She says "Good Lord for alliance! Thus goes everyone to the world but I, and I am sunburnt. I may sit in a corner and cry, 'Heigh-ho for a husband!'" which on its surface, seems a little bit like Beatrice is trying to steer the conversation back to herself. To me, this highlights not just how at ease Beatrice is with her lack of a husband, but how she views Hero. Hero is everyone in the world to her, and now that her world is safely in the hands of her beloved, thus can Beatrice return to her happy corner of the world, unworried by men or love.

It's one of the few female relationships in Shakespeare unfettered by any sort of jealousy. Hero genuinely wants Beatrice to get together with Benedick, Beatrice genuinely wants Hero to marry Claudio, and both women want that because that is what they know lies in the heart of the other woman. They are both driven by love, and that's fascinatingly rare—there are no ugly ulterior motives in the relationship.

Did you draw (or reject) from other Beatrices you've seen?

Carpenter & Darcy in Much Ado
I tried to watch as many versions of the show as possible once I knew I was cast and had strong ideas of my own but well before we started rehearsal. So my Christmas was spent watching other Beatrices and seeing what I thought worked, what I thought didn't, what cuts I thought were completely egregious. What struck me most was how a lot of versions I watched couldn't decide on what the show was, exactly. I think a lot of people have an abstract idea that "Oh, Beatrice is the funny one and everything should be played for a laugh." I know I made a very conscious decision not to try to be funny—which sounds ridiculous! It's a comedy! But this is a show where the comedy needs to be weightless and top itself, and the more comedic business you add on each line, the more stakes you add to that line, until suddenly you are watching all these Beatrices' trying to hit a home-run belly-laugh on every single line. And it is not only exhausting, but when you are fighting for a laugh, it obscures a fair amount of the beautiful language.

What about the movies?

I was, for many many years, entirely obsessed with Emma Thompson's Beatrice, and Emma Thompson herself. I am sure I have probably stolen more than I realize from her, but quite honestly, if you are going to accidentally be a poor copy of someone, at least be Emma Thompson.

I know many many people loved Joss Whedon's version, but I have yet to sit through it without screaming—it epitomized (to me) what happens when you remove the musicality and formality of the show, and it seemed to rob anyone (but particularly Beatrice, unconstrained by society or outside judgement) of specific stakes. I'm currently trying to find a video of the Janet McTeer/Mark Rylance Much Ado [London, 1993] as a closing night present to myself. I want to weep at their utter perfection when I no longer have to attempt to even use the same yardstick as them.

I’m interested in gender-bent casting, so I’d love to hear more about your Mercutio last summer. How did you address the gender swap onstage or in rehearsal?

Mercutio is a part that pretty much does all of your work for you, if you let it. He has surprisingly few scenes—I think there are maybe three major ones (four if you break the beginning of Act Three into two scenes), plus a cameo appearance at the ball. But I have never had people react to a character just walking onstage they way people do when Merc comes on. The audience is ready. They want you to be outrageous, they want to laugh.

How did you approach the role?

Anwen Darcy as Mercutio
in Romeo & Juliet (2015)
I remember when I got the offer to do Mercutio, the brief was just "Tank Girl in Verona". So I built on that, and very gradually it became apparent to me that Mercutio was male, regardless of what my sex was. Merc is a boy. So Romeo and Benvolio treated me like a man—I don't think we even wound up swapping pronouns in their lines because I was absolutely 100 percent male to them. So to us, it was still three boys against the world. It wound up affecting Tybalt more, I think—he was the only one who ever referred to me as female onstage, and it was only during the fight, so he was using it as weapon of sorts. So to the actors, we had a very specific roadmap of negotiating the sex change.

You know Sebastian Stan in the Captain America movies? Bucky Barnes as the Winter Soldier was the endgame, physically, for Mercutio. We just wanted there to be so much going on—hair, eye makeup, sais hanging off my hips, scuffed-up combat boots and jacket—that it hid any kind of distinct femininity and just switched into an aggressive sexuality. 

Did your gender alter the dynamic with your Romeo?

Romeo and Juliet has a very pronounced and vocal community of Romeo/Mercutio/Benvolio shippers (people who think that those characters are romantically involved, and in any and all ways that triangle would allow it to happen) so it was interesting to see how that affected people's perception. I certainly wasn't playing any romantic interest in Romeo, but lots of people commented on how they saw the romantic longing there in our scenes together. Whether or not that was because I was female or whether it's just because it's a very popular subtext in Romeo and Juliet commentary right now, I don't know.

Talking about Shakespeare more generally, what’s your perspective on his roles for women?

I think one of Shakespeare's great strengths in writing women is that he lets them be flawed, he lets them be whole messy people with internal engines and agendas. I think the problem you run into is that then he doesn't know how to reconcile that with the endings of his shows, a lot of times.

What do you mean?

Anwen Darcy as Beatrice
Look at Much Ado. Beatrice pretty much talks her way through every single scene she is in, regardless of the sex of the other people on stage with her. Then you hit the wedding. Beatrice has five lines in the wedding, three of which are some variation on "Hero, why are you falling down? Hero??" She briefly defends her cousin's honor, but it's one of the few times you see her immediately back down when confronted. Why isn't she talking? We know she has a lot of opinions and feelings about the situation—her explosion at Benedict in the next scene confirms that. But after the wedding, after the humiliation of Hero, Beatrice stops talking out of turn. She stops driving scenes. She surrenders the narrative entirely to Benedick, issuing him an ultimatum and then leaving. It's horrible! It's infuriating, because Beatrice is more than capable of cutting Claudio and Don Pedro down to size. But she doesn't—she defers to Benedick. So as a modern woman, that's infuriating. Beatrice has so much going for her, and it's dropped at the end of the show because she's in love and no longer needs to be complicated.

I see!

And that, to me, is the biggest flaws of Shakespeare's shows—once an intelligent and complicated woman has served her purpose, she stops talking. In Lady Macbeth's case, she dies offstage. OFFSTAGE!! She gets a couple of lines explaining her death, and that's it. So it's a challenge to motivate the sudden drop in your lines—why is Beatrice, a woman who talks so much that she is compared to a parrot—suddenly silent? I'm still a little mad at Will at that one. I don't think any of his plays are beyond salvaging, but I do think being mindful of the way women-of-agency are treated is very important.

Are there any particular Shakespearean roles you’d love to play?

Of course I have a Shakespeare bucket list. I've been very, very lucky because I've knocked a couple of dream roles—Hermia, Princess of France, Mercutio and now Beatrice—off very early in my career. I'd love to come back to Beatrice, maybe in ten years, just to see how differently I see her then. Cleopatra is next on my list—it's such a complicated play, and Shakespeare's Cleo is such a weird mix of romantic and deeply pragmatic that I really want to tackle it and just drive myself crazy. Titus is another one—I've wanted to play Lavinia for ages, because she's so important to the show and yet is completely silent for most of her stage time. As someone who is normally given pages upon pages of dialogue, I would really love the challenge of playing someone who is primarily onstage to project her internal life, and who can only communicate in limited physical movement. And I think Kate in Shrew has got to be on anyone's list. Just a chance to tackle that final monologue, to try and wrangle that beast into submission, is a challenge I think pretty much all classical actors have spent time thinking about.

Any dream-roles traditionally played by men?

In terms of gender bending—I am deeply jealous of any man who has ever gotten to be Henry V. I love that show, I love Henry, I love the whole leadup to his journey in Henry IV parts 1 and 2. I would probably do a lot of terrible, terrible things if you promised me that I could be Prince Hal.


Bryant Park Presents and The Drilling Company's Much Ado About Nothing runs from May 19 to June 4 in Bryant Park. Tickets are free.


headshot  Laura Rose
photos #2,3, & 5  Remy
photo #4  Josef Pinlac