Thursday, February 11, 2016

Women on Shakespeare: Sandy Foster as Maria & Feste

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 #6 in my interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shak and related work.

As part of the 400th anniversary of Shak's death, the Filter Theatre brings their Twelfth Night (originally co-produced by the RSC) to NYC this month. The company has a reputation for stripped stagings and vivid soundscapes, a punk-inspired aesthetic they apply to both classics and new plays. One member of the English company is Sandy Foster, who plays a pair of roles, Maria and Feste. Sandy took a break from the show's American tour to answer a few questions via email.

Let’s start with the role of Maria. As an actor, can you speak to what makes her a full-dimensioned woman?

Maria is a total dream to play because she is a fantastic example of how brilliant Shakespeare's writing was for women. I’m inclined to suggest he was ahead of his time with his treatment of women, compared to his contemporaries, but actually nowadays you’d be hard-pressed to see a woman on TV/film who doesn’t at some point end up in her bra and knickers. I don’t think Shakespeare ever wrote a scene that demanded that, and surely that suggests we’ve just gone backwards rather than he being ahead.

That's true, but his ratio of men to women is tilted heavily.

Yes, there weren’t many [women] comparatively, but those he did write were, in my opinion, strong and independently-minded. Maria is easily the most intelligent of the party of three who are plotting their revenge on Malvolio, and the driving force behind his eventual demise. There’s a beautiful scene in which she lays out her plan for the men to hear, and she clearly has the full measure of Malvolio. She understands his weaknesses, his desires, his ambition, even seemingly his secrets, and she knows with absolute confidence that she can destroy him. Not only is she a woman, but she’s also a servant, and yet she’s able to use her intellect and strength of conviction to defy what might otherwise be perceived as weaknesses. What’s weak about that? She’s utterly fierce and I love playing her.

What about playing Feste? Do you play the fool as male, female, or is gender not addressed?

Strangely, I have always thought about my Feste as a man. We haven’t changed the text so he continues to be referred to as male, and yet, due to the nature of our particular production (no real costume), there is no getting away from the fact that physically, I am a woman. The audience will make their own decision about whether to ignore my physical attributes or to believe Feste is female or indeed androgynous. I’m not sure it really matters.

Do you have any strategies for the Elizabethan wordplay or the ‘clowning’ aspects of the role?

I always love to play the clowns. They’re the characters I most relate to and there’s something so thrilling about playing the one character in the play who sees it all for what it really is. They’re strangely omnipotent. The language can be tricky, and a lot of the humor references old jokes that people would have understand at the time. But you just have to play them with an open heart, and find the paradox between their clowning and truth-telling. It’s a powerful moment when a clown starts to cry. They are always tipping the edge of melancholy and hilarity. They’re Shakespeare's finest characters, in my opinion. 

How so?

For me, the clowns in Shakespeare's plays are the truth-tellers. They are entirely open-hearted and always tell the truth. They hold a mirror up to all the other characters and force them to confront themselves, but in such a way that none of them know it's happening to them until they’ve learnt their own truth. I find it fascinating that the clown in Hamlet, Yorick, is dead. The truth, the openness, the honesty and indeed the humour in that play are absent. Like the clown.

Have you performed in Twelfth Night before?

This is the only production of Twelfth Night I have ever been in. It’s one of his best comedies, I think. A play where everyone wants something or someone that they can’t have. It’s utterly painful.

How about other productions?

I saw a great production performed by the year above me at my drama school (The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama) which captured Olivia’s grief beautifully, but I’ve never seen a production that did a better party scene than the one in this version. I saw this production before I was in it, and I just fell in love with the anarchy. I think Shakespeare would have loved it.

Do you believe training is necessary to play Shakespeare?

I think training is important full stop. There’s something integral in the daily practice of strengthening your voice, body, and mind that stands you in great stead when you get out there in the real world. Acting is a craft that requires hard work, energy, and discipline, but with current trends in youth, beauty, and a desire to be famous, it’s very easy for that to be forgotten.

What are some of the keys to Shakespearean acting?

The language of Shakespeare is incredibly dense and poetic, and you absolutely have to understand what it is you’re saying if you want the audience to understand. There are so many rules and academic opinions about Shakespeare, which makes it potentially terrifying. But I really approach it in the same way I would approach any script, and my training is what gives me the knowledge, confidence, and technical skills needed to do that. 

What other Shakespeare have you done?

Professionally I’ve only done one other Shakespeare play, Much Ado About Nothing, in which I played the clown Dogberry. That particular role is almost always played by older men, so I was over the moon when I was asked to do it. We came across lots of challenges, but it was a role that just kept giving, and I relished every moment. People were very divided about whether a woman should ever be allowed to play such a part. Not everyone thinks women should be funny or unattractive and my Dogberry was both those things. During training I also played the clown Costard in Love's Labour's Lost and Claudius in Hamlet. I’ve played more of Shakespeare's male roles than female which makes me feel extremely lucky. You can learn a great deal from seeing the world through such different eyes.

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

So, so many. However, the tragedies in particular appeal to me hugely. My favorite Shakespeare play is Titus Andronicus. It’s all death and destruction, a proper Greek tragedy. I’m fascinated by muteness so would love to play Lavinia whilst I’m still the right age. I’m also desperate to play Lady Macbeth because there is another fine example of Shakespeare writing women who could run the world.

What about other male roles?

In terms of male parts, the possibilities are endless. Hamlet would be a great one to have a crack at, as would Lear. We’ve had some great women in the UK play these parts — most recently Maxine Peake played Hamlet and a while back Katherine Hunter was Lear. My dream would be to have played all the clowns eventually. They’re difficult and take a lot of work but when you find them, they are delicious.

The Filter Theatre’s approach to Twelfth Night gets described as ‘radical’ and ‘rock & roll’. What are the advantages to modern, non-traditional approaches to Shakespeare?

I think that traditional costume can hugely alienate an audience subconsciously. It’s a dangerous thing because the language, the content and the mere fact that it is a Shakespeare play can frighten an audience into thinking it’s not for them before the first word of the play is even uttered, and a Shakespearean costume can add a whole extra layer. In terms of everything else that might define this production as radical, i.e. no real set, rock music, audience participation, I genuinely don’t think we’re doing anything that Shakespeare didn’t do. The man was almost certainly a rebel and a rock star.

Have you found any drawbacks?

The only drawbacks I can see is that it’s not for everyone. But then that to me is the definition of real art.

Circling back to Shakespeare's women, do you find anything old-fashioned about his views, or beyond salvaging?

Funnily enough, I think Shakespeare wrote women pretty well. His plays are full of women ready to risk everything for love, kill for ambition and lead armies. They’re usually fiercely intelligent, brave and stronger than their male counterparts. We talk of his plays being difficult or old fashioned, but I think we’d be better off taking a closer look at our contemporaries and ask the same questions. Most plays still revolve around men and feature more male characters whilst the women are reduced to merely mothers, lovers, daughters and servants. Plays that do revolve around women (and there aren’t nearly enough) follow themes like childbirth, marriage and family, despite the fact that we know women today can and do run entire countries. This is the problem. We think we’ve come past all that. We haven’t. We just aren’t forced to wear corsets anymore.

You mentioned depictions of women onstage earlier as well. What about feminism backstage, or outside theater & film?

There’s a real buzz about female equality over in the UK at the moment. I am a member of the Women's Equality Party which is Britain's fastest growing political party, set up in light of that fact that we are so underrepresented in parliament. It’s a battle backed, supported, and led by both women and men, which for me is key. Equality is better for everyone, and so we need everyone to be a part of it. I am also involved in a campaign called 50:50 by 2018 set up by Polly Kemp and Elizabeth Berrington, which promotes more roles for women and equal pay, amongst other issues. The clear fact is that we make up over 50% of the population, and yet less than a third of speaking roles in films are women. How are young girls and women expected to believe they can achieve anything and be anything, if they’re only seeing women in the media almost mute and semi-clad? There are an amazing amount of people (male and female) that think we’ve moved on. But I know of several stories where women are being paid less than men on the same job simply because of their gender. That’s just not right.

What are some of the goals of the campaigns you're working on?

One small thing that we’re starting with is reclaiming the word ‘actress’. It's become unfashionable in the UK because of its historical connotations and so many people call themselves actors, but it’s small things like this that imply that being a woman is just not good enough. We have to take responsibility for making these changes ourselves and being mindful of what we put out there. As women and men, we need to write plays that represent all of us in our complicated, multifaceted roles as human beings. I have just completed writing my first play, which I hope will be a step towards readdressing this imbalance. Things are looking up though — I have recently lost out on a couple of jobs in favour of an older actress. If people are finally seeing the value of older women, I don’t mind missing out on those jobs at all. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be female. And an artist.


The Filter Theatre/RSC's Twelfth Night runs from Feb 16 to 20 at the NYU Skirball Center in Greenwich Village.

photos  Robert Day

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Women on Shakespeare: Lilly Englert as Marina

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 #5 in my interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shak and related work.

For her professional debut in 2014, Lilly Englert was cast by Julie Taymor as one of the lovers of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The next season she was Cordelia to Michael Pennington's Lear. This month, she'll pick up a hat trick, playing Marina in Trevor Nunn's Pericles. The three shows, all at Theater for a New Audience, have put the young actor in contact with top Shakespeare talent. Englert shared her views with me over email.

Have you seen or performed in Pericles before?

I actually never felt compelled to read the play before I auditioned for Marina, given the unknown authorship of the first two acts. However, after I have dug into the roll, I have fallen in love with the story and wonder why it isn’t done more often. I think it is a brilliant journey filled with hope. I believe it is that sense of hope that drives the play.

What can you tell us about the role of Marina?

Marina is Pericles and Thaisa’s daughter, who like her father goes on a rich and often terrifying journey. Life keeps throwing challenges Marina’s way but she never gives up. Marina thinks there is a chance her father could be alive, and using her intelligence and creativity, gets herself out of many difficult situations. Marina is driven by hope.

As an actor, how do you make her into a full-dimensioned woman?

I think when you invest time in a character and have a good director they become full- dimensioned people because that is what we are. Marina is often described as being 'pure' and 'good'. She is that, but if she was only pure and good, I think it would be a pretty uninteresting performance. She is also incredibly smart and articulate with a vivid imagination. She is deeply connected to nature and to the Gods. She is a fighter like her father. She can be depressed and snap like every other person in the world. She experiences overwhelming joy and sadness. She has a gift, but that is not being 'angelic and pure', [it's] being able to affect people through language. And she does that in many different ways.

A few seasons ago, NYC audiences saw you play Cordelia, another ‘good’ daughter of a king. What connections have you drawn between that role and Marina?

I never thought of Cordelia as being a "good" daughter of a king. My mentor once told me "Cordelia is a revolutionary and her weapon is love." That has really stuck with me. In the opening scene she is challenging her father with new ideas. Cordelia isn’t driven by emotion; she loves her father deeply but also has a strong sense of herself and her values.

Marina for most of the play is an orphan, living with the hope that her father is maybe alive. She also has a inner strength and strong sense of herself and morality. Both Marina and Cordelia go through a challenging journey to the be reunited with their fathers. They are both very articulate woman with a strong sense of right and wrong.

How about comparing Marina with Hermia — a much earlier, comedic role in Shakespeare’s career?

I think Hermia, like Marina and Cordelia, has a wonderful inner strength. From the first scene she defies her father, publicly saying she wants to marry Lysander. That is a very courageous thing to do. She runs away and throughout the whole play never gives up on being with the man she loves. She is by no means any less complex than Cordelia or Marina.

Do you believe training is necessary to play Shakespeare?

I don’t know if training is necessary for everyone to play Shakespeare but I know it was for me. I think you need to have an understanding of the rhythm and the 'rules' to then be able to break them.

You’ve now worked with a few top-notch Shakespearean directors. How would you contrast Trevor Nunn’s approach to staging with Julie Taymor’s?

I feel extremely fortunate to have worked with wonderful directors who all have a different approach to Shakespeare. Julie Taymor sees the world in such a creative way and has a very vivid imagination. She was enthusiastic about making Shakespeare sound 'real', which I loved and can really connect to. She didn’t want us to over-act because we were speaking heightened language. Julie spent a lot of time helping us with the way our characters moved and how that influenced the text. Every gesture was so specific and that allowed me to understand much more about Hermia. Julie is an artist who sees the world in magical way, like no one I have ever meet before.

Trevor Nunn’s approach has been to start with a deep understanding of the text and the play and his creativity comes from that. He is so specific with language and I feel very fortunate to be working with him.

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

I have wanted to play Juliet since I was 18 and that is still the top of the list. I work on her in my spare time just because I love the role so much. I would also love to play Ophelia.

Any dream-roles traditionally played by men?

At the moment I don’t feel drawn to playing roles traditionally played by men because there are so many great female roles I want to play. I am very passionate about Shakespeare and in my career I want to play as many parts as possible.

Shakespeare’s plays have some­ — let’s say ‘problematic’ — roles for modern women. In this show, he gets comedic mileage from pitching a chaste girl into a brothel. Is there any friction between his 16th-century notion of women with your 21st-century views?

I think the fact that a chaste girl gets sold into a brothel is utterly relevant to today's society. In many countries young girls are still being sold to slavery and prostitution and a play like Pericles brings that issue to the surface.


Theatre for a New Audience's Pericles runs from Feb 14 to Mar 27 at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Fort Greene.

photo 1  Lilly Englert
photo 2  Englert with Michael Pennington in TFANA's King Lear
photo 3  Englert with Zach Appelman & Jake Horowitz in TFANA's Midsummer

credits (2 & 3)  Carol Rosegg

Monday, November 9, 2015

Women on Shakespeare: Clare Dunne as Prince Hal

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 #4 in my new interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shak and related work.

Phyllida Lloyd's all-female company of Shakespeareans returns to the Donmar and St. Ann's with a Henry 4 set in a women's prison. Like the same team's Julius Caesar (St. Ann's, '13), it gives great female actors the chance to play great male roles, led by Harriet Walter. Clare Dunne returns with the company this month as Prince Hal to Walter's Henry IV. And she takes the time to email about the work.

Let’s start with Henry 4 and your work on it! It’s rare to see an all-female cast in Shakespeare, but not an all-male one. What facets of the play and playwright did this break with convention reveal to you?

A) That women and men are actually very similar. We can all identify with Hal's struggle to transform, please his parent, and grow up.

B) The term Woman was derogatory back then, and the treatment of hostess sometimes is very unfair. We capitalised on moments like that.

C) The scene of Hotspur and Lady Percy has so many layers when performed by two women. It unlocked the scene in a great way. You understand both sides of the marriage and eventually see Hotspur's tough mask drop. There is genuine love between them.

With the setting of a women’s prison, Ms. Lloyd doesn’t simply ignore her actors’ gender or ask you to play the roles ‘as men’. How does this complex approach to gender and sexuality affect your performance?

Actually, I first just aim to be physically more like a boy and to speak with lower resonance.

The prisoner as the basis of who I am lets me just make decisions quickly from a gut feeling and not worry about right or wrong. Because that's what the prisoners would do. I think the prisoner sets the actor free. Ironic.

What can you tell readers about Hal? What’s the most difficult part of the role? 

Difficult to think of myself as Royal—I'm Irish for god's sake! 

Then what’s surprised you about him?

Surprised me? The sheer scope of journey. What he thinks he knows versus what he learns by experience. 

Is there a choice he makes, or a speech he gives, that’s helped you find your way into the role?

The speech "Do not think so. You shall not find it so" is a good turning point, plus, underneath it all, he just wants his dad to love him. Also here he realises he now has to do what he promised. Before this he was all talk and no action.

Have you seen the play before? Have you played any of its other roles?

No. I saw a TV version but it didn't affect my playing. I saw Druid do it this summer but I had already played Hal before by then, so for me it was actually lively to just look at him from the outside in!

In a few interviews online, you’ve mentioned Harriet Walter’s influence on your career. Now you’ve played her wife & rival in J. Caesar and her son in Henry 4. What have you picked up from her, acting-wise?

A lot about using the words and trusting to follow through on a thought or a line. It does the acting for you! She's generally so nice to work with. Very generous.

What’s your background in Shakespeare and other classics? Do you think training is necessary to play Shakespeare?

Background: a couple of projects in drama school. I've read about verse-speaking, picked up tips, etc.

But no: training is not necessary to enjoy speaking this language. It's in us. It's instinct and words and you are expressing something to another human being. Are you human? Can you read? Do you ever try getting something across to someone? Yes, every day. Then you can for his.

Do you have any particular Shakespearean roles you’d love to perform? Not just the women either—any dream-roles traditionally played by men?

Macbeth maybe. Falstaff! Cleopatra.

In Henry 4, Shakespeare pointedly excludes women in the political arena, in the scene with Lady Hotspur. How do you try to reconcile his 16th-century views of women with your 21st-century ones?

Basically we just follow our guts and play the scenes human to human. I think context and direction help underlay political themes or views. I think just seeing us play all the roles says a lot in itself.

Don't really understand this question sorry!


The Donmar Warehouse's Henry IV runs from Nov 6 to Dec 6 at St. Ann's Warehouse in Dumbo.

photos  Helen Maybanks
photo 1  Clare Dunne
photo 2  Clare Dunne, top, with Jade Anouka

Monday, November 2, 2015

Women on Shakespeare: Christina Pumariega as Adriana

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 #2 in my new interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shak and related work.

Christina Pumariega has been on an all-boro tour with the Mobile Shakespeare Unit and The Comedy of Errors. The MSU is part of the Public Theater, bringing free plays to prisons, shelters, and other community centers across NYC. Coming off the road, Pumariega emailed with me about Adriana, the "skyrocket" of Shak's comedy.

I’m a big fan of the Mobile Shakespeare Unit’s mission. How does its primary audience of non-traditional theatergoers affect the company’s approach to this Comedy of Errors?

"Accessibility" was the word that continually came up in rehearsals. Our director prioritized it, our company mined for it, our designers translated it, our producers advocated for it, again and again and again. Everything we've made in our Comedy of Errors has been in pursuit of inviting audiences to step into a world that's relatable, familiar, funny, and true. Even though the events that transpire are ridiculously heightened, as a team we worked towards meeting the truth in every scene, often confronting audience members with our jokes and insults and ideas face-to-face. And I think every member of our cast can attest to these "non-traditional theatergoers" as hands down the best audiences in the five boroughs.

What sort of aesthetic does Kwame Kewi-Armah bring to Comedy?

Kwame's concept for this Comedy brings us to the ultimate American border town, where Ephesus and Syracuse parallel South Texas and Mexico, a region that historically, depending on who you talk to from that area, cannot simply be divided by one single line or mandate. This grey zone is far more dangerous for some than others, and Kwame really sought to explore how political corruption, capitalism, and currency dictate the value of human life in a rich country shoulder-to-shoulder with a poor one. These are extreme people living extremely now, and Kwame encouraged us towards the reality of what it means to be "other" in corrupt, materialistic Ephesus. What's incredible about this play is everyone at some point or another feels the sting of this indictment.

Have you seen or performed in Comedy before?

I've never seen or performed in The Comedy of Errors prior to our Mobile Shakespeare Unit production. I actually think it's lucky that such an old play has been a brand new one for me. It's enormously freeing.

What have you discovered about the play? or about Shakespeare in general?

Every day we find dozens of new discoveries. And that's largely due to our audience. Touring has reminded me never to take for granted how completely different every audience is, simply in playing one different environment after another. The moment you assume how the story will unfold in front of people you rob them of all the discovery that lies in you as a storyteller.

What’s surprised you about Adriana? What’s the most difficult facet of the role?

Before we started rehearsing, a director friend gave me some advice about her. She emphasized how Adriana does everything out of love. I thought, “Oh yeah of course. That's a given. I love my husband. Sure.” But in skyrocketing from one tactic to the next, one emotion to another, I found conveying real love to be quite difficult.

It's the seesaw I ride every time we play. How to navigate someone powerful and sensual who knows her mind, but is shaped by fear. Every day she looks and feels more and more familiar. And every day I try to love with more bravery, less abandon.

Have you acted in Shakespeare or other classics before this?

I've acted in a good deal of Shakespeare and Jacobean plays, yes. Inevitably there are always very few women in the room, which honestly just makes things dull and dusty. That isn't the case with our production, I'm very proud to say.

Do you believe training is necessary?

I don't think formal training is necessary. Often I think rigid approaches to text work get in the way and keep me from trying new things on my feet. Still, for me classical plays require access to lots of breath and tons of curiosity. And these things aren't mutually exclusive.

Do you have any particular Shakespearean roles you’d love to perform? Not just the women either—any dream-roles traditionally played by men?

Few of the women's roles are on my list, because I've seen a lot of killer Rosalinds and Lady Macbeths and Imogens and Cleopatras. I'm very interested in playing some of those men's roles: Mercutio, Cassisus, Iago, Hamlet.

Shakespeare writes complex women, but he often begins with negative types. In Comedy, for instance, he plays with audience expectations of a shrewish wife and her good-girl sister. How do you try to reconcile his 16th-century depictions of women with your 21st-century views?

I reconcile it probably the same way most actresses do, by trying to make these bottomless needs real. The size and scope of that desire often seems towering on the page, but Adriana's fear or jealousy or love is just as real as any other human at the end of their rope. She is mouthy and muscular and that reminds me of women I know, especially the Italian and Cuban women who raised me. They make a lot of uncomfortable noise, but they fight for love ferociously, and in doing so they demand to be heard.


The Mobile Shakespeare Unit's Comedy of Errors runs from Nov 1 to 22 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Tickets are $20.


photos  Joan Marcus

Friday, October 16, 2015

Women on Shakespeare: Elisabeth Preston as Banquo

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 #2 in my new interview series, Women in Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shak and related work.

This month, the role of Banquo in Fab Marquee's Macbeth is Elisabeth Preston. This production has subverted the traditional hetero casting of Macbeth in a big way. Both Macbeths are gay males, Duncan is a queen, the witches are slaves. I also saw Preston in an all-female Restoration comedy in 2014, so I emailed with her to talk about about Shakespeare and gender onstage.
Preston (r) with Mel House
in Fab Marquee's Macbeth

What was your first experience with Macbeth?

The first time I read Macbeth was in high school, and I absolutely hated the text. It felt like a silly ghost story with witches, spells, Highland mists, war, murder, and a stage littered with dead bodies… your typical Shakespeare tragedy! Hence my aversion and avoidance of the play for years, until I was asked to participate in an evening of performances for the Actor's Equity Association promoting gender-blind casting. Rebecca Patterson, founder and artistic director of the Queens Company asked me to play Macduff, in the scene where he is confronted by Malcolm, the rightful heir of Scotland. For the first time, I understood the incredible nuances and subtle shifts of the play, the political powers at work, and the humanity that can be revealed when a person is left with no other options but to fight for their life. When I saw that Tom, Antonio, and David were producing a non-traditional casting of the show, my heart absolutely leapt. I knew I had to challenge my fears, suppositions, and knee-jerk dislike of the play and give it a second chance.

Can you tell us more about the non-traditional casting?

This production intrigued me because they made a male role a female one instead. By virtue of changing the gender, the relationship, words, and moments between she and Macbeth open up to possibility. In the original text, Banquo is a Lord of Scotland who fought valiantly side-by-side with Macbeth. They are men who experienced the unspeakable horrors of war together, a camaraderie that is profound—making [Macbeth's] betrayal of Banquo that much more poignant. This relationship is still intact when Banquo is a woman, but in light of our modern military system, I found the construct of a woman fighting valiantly alongside an openly gay man quite intriguing given sexual harassment against women and the history of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

Preston (r) as a libertine
in the Queens Company's Sir Patient Fancy
I saw you a few years ago in Sir Patient Fancy with the Queens Company. You played a rake in that show, and here you play Banquo, a warrior. Have you played any other male roles?

I've played men several times, and oh how fun it is to wield a sword! When I play a man, I enact a handful of physical gender cues that help ‘sell’ the gender switch. I’ll pitch my voice down, keep a wide stance, and do the NY subway ‘man spread’ when I sit. Aside from those cues, I focus on the words and story, making it clear and heartfelt. In this way, my hope is that audiences are able to see the common human experience, which is something that transcends gender.

Do you have any particular Shakespearean roles you’d love to perform—male or female?

Oh they’re all so good. Can you imagine performing the entire canon, and saying all of Shakespeare's words?! Is life long enough and could opportunity provide?! What an insight into humanity that would be…

How do you feel about training to play Shakespeare?

Training is not necessary to love, enjoy, or perform Shakespeare, but education (via life or academia) helps to unpack and enrich the experience. I knew that if I wanted to make a living performing, I'd need a little help. After getting my undergraduate degree in Theater at the University of Kansas (special thanks to Paul Meier), and an MFA from the University of Florida State Asolo Conservatory, I was better equipped to be a more resonant artist. And that's all I've ever sought to do: speak Shakespeare's words with resonance, clarity, and truth. It's surprising the amount of work it takes to stand on stage and tell the truth in front of an audience.

Preston (r) with Antonio Minino
in Fab Marquee's Macbeth
Shakespeare has some—let’s say ‘problematic’ views about women. This play, for instance, paints powerful women (Lady Macbeth) and sexual ambiguity (those bearded sisters) in dark tones. How do you try to reconcile his 16th-century depictions of women with your 21st-century views?

The canon is certainly a reflection of its time, and reconciling his views (a mirror of his society) with our contemporary views is easy. He wrote incredibly smart and funny women like Beatrice and Rosaline, those women existed then and they do today. He wrote politically persuasive and sexually powerful women like The Princess of France and Cleopatra. He wrote Desdemona, a women accused of infidelities she didn't commit and she was killed for it. All of this is a reflection of the place of women in society then, and is still an accurate reflection of women around the globe today. So while the sexual ambiguity of the witches may be painted in dark tones, this is a reflection of how his (and our…) society view ‘the other.’ So much has changed since his time, but really so much has stayed the same. His is the voice of the human experience.


Fab Marquee's Macbeth (of the Oppressed) runs from Oct 8 to Oct 24 at the Theater at the 14th Street Y (344 E. 14th Street).

Macbeth  Michael Dekker
Sir Patient Fancy  Bob Pileggi

Friday, October 9, 2015

Review: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Pearl Theater)

A Midsummer Night's Dream
playwright  William Shakespeare
company  Pearl Theater
theater  Pearl Theater

Mark Bedard, Sean McNall, Jason O’Connell, Joey Parsons, & Nance Williamson

director  Eric Tucker
choreography  Birgitta Victorson
set  John McDermott
costumes  Jessica Wegener Shay
lights  Eric Southern
sound  Mikail Fiskel  

An exhilarating Midsummer at the Pearl reduces the show to five players, a bare stage, and no props. Yet it may be the most visually stunning production I’ve ever seen. Throughout the show, the actors mutate and contort themselves to create strange stage images and impressive CGI-like metamorphoses. The show opens with a performer aping a gorilla. Then Duke Theseus and his train arrive to hunt, bate, and shoot the beast. This is Midsummer influenced by Lynch and Cronenberg, and its fairies are the stuff of Guillermo del Toro’s nightmares.

The no-prop, all-physical style frees Jason O'Connell from the masks and prosthetics that obscure most Bottoms. O’Connell plays the part as an everyman who’s vaguely aware of and disturbed by his transformation into a monster. Opposite him, Joey Parsons makes Titania an impressively uncanny presence, moving her arms in slow ripples to suggest the billowing of her gown as her Titania floats regally in the air. Her sexual conquest of Bottom has an element of rape to it, with her fairies dragging him into an S/M scenario with no safe-word. In this Midsummer, the love-flower is a thorny trident that gets stabbed into the victim’s eyes.

Eric Tucker, the director, has already established himself as an inventive interpreter of Shak with Bedlam Theater and with Women of Will, a two-actor feminist perspective on Shak’s career. He reaches a new level with Midsummer by finding a stage correlative for the alchemy of Shak’s poetry. His performers alter their bodies in the same way that metaphor transforms an image. Throughout the play Puck describes his power of transformation, and it’s the core of O’Connell’s performance. His Puck is mercurial as the Genie in Aladdin, taking regular form as a buzz-winged demonoid.

The human characters swat at this hornet-like fairy, who from their POV is insect-sized. This trick of perspective is a signature of Tucker’s; in Midsummer he also fractures time, moving back and forth in the play at strange moments. He repeats Puck’s claims of mutability, once as a soliloquy at intermission and then backwards at the return (like a satanic record). Tucker also revisits Bottom’s transformation from different POVs over the show’s three hours.

These two moments are the foundation of Tucker’s radical Midsummer. But what makes the Pearl’s staging (co-produced with the Hudson Valley Shak Festival) a work of genius is that it doesn’t sacrifice the play’s delights to its dark vision. The lovers are still full of delightful follies, and the clowns are as bumptious as ever. O’Connell may stand out as Tucker’s onstage surrogate, but all five actors cohere as an ensemble and have stand-out moments. The staging is protean and manic, but its action is always clear as day and at the service of Shak’s tale.

Tucker’s Bedlam is one of two New York companies who are rising to the challenge that Shak’s endless linguistic invention poses (the other is the Fiasco Theater). Both companies slim the cast size and double- and triple-cast actors, ignoring gender and type. They relax the realistic impulse that lies under most productions. By following the playwright’s lead—those plots, that verse, all the plays-within-plays—they prove (if any proof was needed) that Shak is great material for experimental theater. It’s too soon to call them the vanguard of a movement. But between this Midsummer and  Fiasco’s Two Gents last spring, NYC in 2015 is the scene of superb, forward-looking Shakespeare.


The Pearl Theater's Midsummer Night's Dream runs from Sep 8 to Nov 1 at 555 W. 42nd Street.

photos  Russ Rowland

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Women on Shakespeare: Joey Parsons as Titania, Hermia, and others

Since most Shakespearean casts are male-heavy (and some are male-only), show coverage tends to focus on men who create the work. Let's balance that out! I'm starting a new interview series on The Fifth Wall, talking with the women who produce and perform Shakespeare and related work.

For the inaugural entry, I emailed with Joey Parsons. She's a member of the Pearl Theater's acting company, one of the few NYC companies to remount classics like Shak and Shaw. This fall, Ms. Parsons is part of the five-actor ensemble in A Midsummer Night's Dream, a phenomenally inventive production directed by Eric Tucker.

Which roles do you play in this five-actor Midsummer?

I play Hermia, Titania, and Snout, with a smattering of Hippolyta and a few of Demetrius’ lines.

How do you manage all the shifts from role to role?

In terms of actorly techniques, I prepare differently for each production I'm fortunate enough to work in. For this Midsummer, I put a lot of thought into physicality. I was trained in ballet and several other dance techniques, and I find that thinking about how a character moves or stands really helps me. I tried to find one gesture for each character. Nothing too crazy, just a little physical thing to put me in that body. Hermia felt most like me, so her voice is my voice. Snout is a little more innocent and in love with Bottom (the way I’m playing her), so I found her voice to be a bit higher than my normal range. Titania feels of-the-elements to me, so I naturally put a bit more gravitas into her speech.

What sort of approach did Eric Tucker bring to rehearsals?

Eric was enormously collaborative and was always open to suggestions. In fact we had a half-joke amongst the cast to be careful what we would joke about in front of Eric because he would always say “Yes! Try that!” The fantastic way we end our production, with Puck getting smashed by Bottom, was actually a joke that Mark Bedard made during a break that Eric overheard!

Of course only five of us are playing all the characters, but I (and the audience, I hope) started to see how all of these story lines intersect and weave together. I used to see Midsummer as essentially three separate stories, but we’ve woven them all together in a fascinating way.

Did the rehearsals help you discover anything new about Shakespeare in general?

I’m remembering a wonderful interview with Mark Rylance in which he called for more irreverence in Shakespeare. I saw his marvelous Twelfth Night on Broadway, and couldn’t wait to work on some Shakespeare again so that I could try it in a looser, more playful way. The whole rehearsal process for Midsummer was about play. And so is the performing of it. If I’m not having a good time on stage, for whatever reason, it's because I am thinking too much and not playing enough. It’s like a wonderful meditation. I have to work at remaining present and playful.

Have you been in Midsummer before?

I’ve seen many productions of Midsummer, but I’ve never been in one before. It’s always been a bit of a cursed audition for me, because I’ve never been 'enough of', or I’ve been 'too much of', what they were looking for. I’ve always been told I’m too tall for Hermia, not tall enough for Helena, and not old enough for Titania. Years ago, I auditioned for a production where the director had asked me to prepare Helena. He clearly liked what I brought to the audition, but he thought I was too dark and short. So he asked me to take a few minutes and prepare Hermia. I did. He liked that, but declared me just not right for that either. He had me then prepare Titania: also just not quite right. And then after Titania, Puck! I didn’t book anything in that production! That director went on to cast me in several productions, so no hard feelings!

What about Midsummers you've seen? Have they influenced how you think about the play?

Most productions I’ve seen felt stodgy to me, and the three story lines were very, very separate. But I did see one production, years ago at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, which was set in space. Yes, space. It was kooky and playful, and was one of the first times I thought that it was actually awesome to not take Shakespeare so damn seriously.

Do you think training is necessary to perform Shakespeare?

We did a lot of Shakespeare work at Yale School of Drama. I did countless hours of text analysis and voice work on any given class assignment or production. I’m grateful for what I learned there, but I do have to say that I got way too in-my-head about it for many years. I convinced myself that there was a 'right' way to do Shakespeare, and that if I wasn’t doing hours and hours of text work, underlining all the antithesis, and pause breaks and breath breaks with all my different-colored pens, I wasn’t doing my job and I wasn’t a good actor.

This is not me criticizing my education or Shakespeare study in general. My experience is part of my inherent personality; I always want to get things right. And it was a good lesson for me in that there is no right. There is only clear communication. Whatever that means for an actor and a director. For years, I was concerned with correct inflection, not illuminated communication. That is my goal now.

How do you prepare now?

I do still like to underline, and I like trying to get the iambic pentameter correct. Although, at one point in this Midsummer production, Eric asked me to not do it 'correctly' on one of my lines because it sounded too stodgy and pulled the audience out of the story, and into the text. I totally got where he was coming from.

I have to say that most of my favorite 'Shakespearean' actors have not done extensive Shakespeare study. They simply try to make the text sound sensical. I auditioned for a lot of Shakespeare out of grad school, and didn’t book any for years. Then one day, I decided to treat my audition as an experiment, and I decided to do the opposite of everything I’d been taught. I booked that job!

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

I’ve been so fortunate to play some lovely ones: Rosalind, Lady Anne, Ariel, and many others. I always wanted a crack at Juliet, but as the late, great Mark Rucker once said to me: “Honey, you’d better get on that soon!” Perhaps someday Eric Tucker will direct a version of Romeo and Juliet, and as he loves non-traditional, gender-swapping, age-ignoring casting, I’d maybe get a crack at it! Lady Macbeth, Constance in King John, Beatrice, Kate in Shrew, Cleopatra, and oddly enough, Queen Katherine in Henry VIII. It’s a play that is hardly ever done, mostly for good reason, but her courtroom speech is astounding, and one that I often did for auditions early on in my career when they “just wanted to see a little Shakespeare.” I think directors who would ask me for a Shakespearean monologue always thought I was about to pull out some Ophelia, but then I’d launch into Queen Katherine. It always slightly shook them!

Any dream-roles traditionally played by men?

I never really thought much about men’s roles! But now that I think of it: Iago.

Shakespeare’s plays have some—let’s say ‘problematic’ roles for modern women. Do you try to reconcile his 16th-century depictions of women with your 21st-century views?

Great question. We spoke in rehearsal about how in Midsummer and in fact in most of Shakespeare’s plays, once a resolution of sorts has occurred, the women are rarely heard from again. In Midsummer, Hermia and Helena are onstage, but not heard from again (except in this production!).

I always found this perplexing. I played Isabella in Measure for Measure years ago, and I just couldn’t get over the fact that she never answers the Duke’s proposal in the end. She’s not heard from at all! A lot of productions have clever ways of solving this problem so that it seems like less of a problem. In the production I did, Juliet went into labor at the moment of the proposal and interrupted Isabella’s answer.

In Midsummer rehearsals, we spoke about how we didn’t think it was an oversight that most of the women are not heard from again, but a clear comment on what was 'expected' from married (and engaged) women in Shakespeare’s day and age.

What about how, in Midsummerhe gets comedic mileage from pairing a queen off with a monster?

In terms of Titania being paired off with a donkey, well, yes, I would find that 'joke' very hard to forgive. But technically, Titania doesn’t know yet that it was Oberon who played this trick on her. She may have an idea. But all she knows is that Oberon has awoken her from what she thought was a bad dream, she is beside a donkey, and a pair of lovers, and she is baffled as to what has actually transpired. The last interaction the audience sees between her and Oberon is this:

Come my lord, and in our flight
Tell me how it came this night
That I sleeping here was found
With these mortals on the ground.

The audience does not see the offstage fury that may ensue. I’ve been playing this line as though this is where I’m starting to suspect that Oberon may have had a hand in this. But then the scene ends. I’ve also decided to believe the standpoint that I love Oberon with the fire of a thousand suns, and that my passion and love and desire for him at that moment of forgiveness would trump any anger I had toward him.

Midsummer also has a pair of girls who are deliberately generic (to be fair, so are the boys). As an actor, how do you make these two roles into full-dimensioned women?

I find this so fascinating! I never thought of the girls as generic! Perhaps this is because of my audition experience—that I was always 'too much' or 'not enough' of what directors wanted. Helena wants a love that is not reciprocated. Hermia wants a love that is reciprocated, but is forbidden. The women’s varying physical traits are commented on several times within the play. Helena could be seen as a doormat or a stalker, but I find her determined and active. She is not passive. She knows her love is true, and after all, she was engaged to Demetrius before the play begins.

We joked in rehearsal how in previous viewings and readings of the play, we’ve all always confused the two men! In this production, the wonderful actors playing these parts have done a spectacular job of differentiating them and giving each one a special something. But in most productions, I must admit, I forget who is who, and whom is really in love with whom. Which, now that I think of it, in a really meta way, was perhaps Shakespeare’s intention all along. To create that sort of mild confusion that comes hand in hand with falling in love, before the real confusion even begins.


The Pearl Theater's Midsummer Night's Dream runs from Sep 8 to Nov 1 at 555 W. 42nd Street.

photos: Russ Rowland