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

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Women on Shakespeare: Maria-Christina Oliveras on Romeo & Juliet

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

Twice every season, the Mobile Shakespeare Unit tours city neighborhoods with limited access to the arts. The company is about to conclude its all-boro tour of Romeo & Juliet with a brief run at the Public. It's on topic to note that this R&J is directed by one of NYC's top Women in Shakespeare, Lear deBessonet. I e-mailed with the company's Nurse, Maria Christina Oliveras, about the play, the Unit's audience, and representation in Shakespeare and theater.

Let’s start with the Mobile Unit’s production of Romeo & Juliet. You play the Nurse, one of Shakespeare’s most beloved minor characters. What have you discovered about the role?

I fall in love with every role I play, but the Nurse has been particularly joyous. She has a huge appetite for life, and is a fearless force of nature. She literally bursts with energy and emotion and love in every moment, and Juliet is her heart and soul.

To me, the crux of the character lies in, “I am the drudge and toil in your delight.” Everything she does is for Juliet’s happiness because it is her own. My cousin once told me that when his first born came into the world, he felt like he no longer mattered—not in a bad way, but his child’s joy was now his joy. Another friend said that having a child is like having your heart out in the world in another being. That’s how the Nurse feels about Juliet. Her own daughter and husband have died, and she has devoted her life to her Lady—and when she does something, she does it all out. She loves on levels above and beyond, and this motivates every decision she makes. When Juliet dies (or she thinks she dies), she dies too. Textually, she literally disappears.

What makes the Nurse so popular with audiences?

I think her ferocity, her willingness to wear her heart on her sleeve, her deep belief in love and faith in God, her lack of pretense, her amazing down and dirty sense of humor and her lack of any filters, have made her a favorite among audiences. Also, she is the friend everyone wants: fiercely committed and loyal—deeply loving and nurturing and maternal, but she will cut and take down anyone who crosses her, or more importantly, someone she loves.

Directors tend to cast white men in Shakespeare, partly out of habit. What do you bring to Shakespeare, as a woman and a Hispanic New Yorker, that traditional casting can’t?

Unfortunately, directors tend to cast white, whether in Shakespeare or not. I actually think Shakespeare supports more integrated casting, and it’s actually now an anomaly (especially at great theaters such as the Public and TFANA) for a classic work to be all white. In fact, I think, unlike other areas of the industry, it is looked down upon, so it is heartening that there are indeed more opportunities in Shakespeare for people of color.

My Nurse is based on three very specific women I know who happen to be Latina. To that end, I do tap into my own heritage as a FiliRican New Yorker (specifically the Puerto Rican side) and Catholic upbringing to bring her to life. I hope my take is very identifiable and relatable, particularly in NYC. There are so many amazing caretakers who migrated to this country and provide the backbone and support to wealthy families, and I strive to honor them with my portrayal.

Lear deBessonet and the Mobile Unit have a strong streak of populism in them. What did you know about her work beforehand?

I have been a huge fan of Lear since seeing her Good Person of Szechwan and the Public Works’ production of The Tempest. To this day, they are two of the best theatrical experiences I have ever had. I remember fan-girling over her in my socially awkward, overly effusive way when we first met. To say the least, I was thrilled to be working with her and her “strong streak of populism,” particularly on the Mobile Unit.

How have your views affected the production's approach to R&J?

I know there’s all kinds of theater out there, and there’s room for all of it, but my heart and soul lies in theater that is innately populist. Everyone should be able to enjoy it, learn from it, have access to it—how beautiful if a piece can bring people together from all walks of life, if only for one night to breathe in the same room and be transported by a story that they can all relate to with their differing perspectives.

I am so over theater being for and catering to an exclusive, homogenous crowd—theater should not be exclusive, and should be relevant and accessible for the elite and the masses alike. Shakespeare wrote for the groundlings and royalty all at once… and he writes of deeply felt passions and struggles and desires and needs that are universal and that absolutely everyone can relate to if they are a human being. 

That said, we have to acknowledge that during Shakespeare’s time, their relationship to language and their vernacular were different. In a world where texting and bitmoji’s and e-mails have become the predominant way to communicate, we seem to be getting farther way from live verbal exchanges. And so, as with any piece, we have to know our audience and celebrate and embrace the fact that we are telling this story in New York City in 2016.

How do deBessonet and her designers bring 2016 NYC into Shakespeare's Verona?
We also have an amazing musician, Marques Toliver, who plays live and whose music is an eclectic fusion of soul, classical, R&B, which audiences love. Our choreographer, Benoit Swan, also offered up a fusion of contemporary and classical styles. Both elements minimize the distancing that people often associate with Shakespeare, making it more accessible for everyone.

What other factors did you have to take into account?

We also had to consider time constraints. To that end, we have streamlined the text, while maintaining the integrity of the story. What text is absolutely necessary? What is, at this point, too esoteric? And, as every rehearsal process should, we have been hyper-tuned to understanding the nuance of everything we say, so that we communicate the story clearly and enter into it with a deep sense of empathy and understanding. We emphasized using the language as action and as a very physical act, rooted in epic primal desires. These audiences have amazing B.S. meters, so they keep us honest in emotional truth and authenticity.

According to your bio, you grew up in the Bronx. How’s it been to tour your home borough with the Mobile Unit?

I am indeed Bronx born and bred. We were just up at Williamsbridge Oval Recreation Center, 15 minutes from my childhood home. It was great to be back, but more importantly, through this whole tour, it has been wonderful to see so many people of color, young and old, from all walks of life, eager to consume Shakespeare and devour stories. To perform for audiences and alongside a cast that truly reflects our world, specifically NYC in all its rich, beautiful diversity, has been such a gift. I say this particularly in light of the theatrical landscape, both onstage and off, which unfortunately, more often than not, tends to be rather limited in its representation.

How have the local audiences been enjoying your production?

Every venue on this tour is so different, and as with any audience, each has its own distinct personality. Each performance is a dance between us and them, and it’s so exciting to get to know your partner. Is it going to be a fox trot? Tango? Waltz? Hip-hop? Every audience gravitates toward something different in the play, and I learn so much from what they hear and respond to. At one of the men’s correctional facilities, when I tell Juliet that Romeo is banished for killing Tybalt, one of the gentleman says to me, “Tell her there are conjugal visits in NY.” Truth—and on some level, that’s exactly what I facilitate when I go to find Romeo so they can consummate their marriage.

Any other surprises?

When we were up at Casita Maria in the Bronx, a young high school gentleman reacted very strongly when Tybalt calls Romeo a slave—this young man heard “slave” and our Romeo happens to be black, and his reaction was, “Yo, he’s racist.” Up at Williamsbridge Rec Center, we had a middle school there who is putting up a production of R&J—the young lady playing the Nurse and I had a wonderful post-show discussion where we exchanged some thoughts on the character. There are so many amazing anecdotes, and truly, I have been humbled to learn so much about the play and its relevance through the eyes and ears of our audiences.

Aside from seeing you in Machinal, I think of you mainly as an actor of new musicals.

I am so grateful to float between genres. I think part of the reason I am an actor is I have intense wanderlust, and constantly need new stimuli and new challenges. Going from a contemporary play, to a new musical, to a Shakespeare, my muscles and skills set are constantly being re-built and tapped in new ways, and I never feel stagnant in my growth and learning.

Could you compare musical theater to Shakespeare? What skills do you draw on from musicals to perform Shak’s play?

In both musicals and Shakespeare, the needs and stakes of all the characters are huge—so huge that heightened language or a song are inevitable. The only way to express what you are feeling is through this lofted language. Also, Shakespeare’s plays are like great pieces of music, and once you know the structure and the map, i.e. all the notes and rhythms and keys, and it is in your bones, you get to scat and play, and lose yourself in the work, tossing a riff in here and there, extending a note where the impulse and need arise. This virtuosic play can only come once you know the map and rules. As with musicals, you must know your music and every step, before you can truly let it all go. To that end, the technical demands are similar. Both are athletic events, so you really have to keep your instrument on point, physically and vocally because you have to have full range of expression in order to inhabit these deep needs and desires.

Have you acted in Shakespeare or other classics before this?

I did the Shakespeare Lab at the Public in 2004 right before I went back to grad school. It was a full-on immersion for 3 months, so it’s bittersweet and lovely to be at the Public doing Shakespeare again. My senior project at Yale was Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, and in grad school, I got to explore a one-person show I wrote of Lady M. in the private moments in her hotel room after the coronation. I also did Lady Capulet, so it’s been great to explore R&J from the Nurse’s perspective. This summer, I’m thrilled to be doing Macbeth in Macbeth, and Jaques in As You Like It at Hudson Valley Shakespeare, so will continue in the classics for a bit.

Do you think training is necessary to play Shakespeare?

I don’t think you need years of formal training to understand or be able to perform Shakespeare, but it is highly demanding technically, and to that end, I do think some form of training or really great directors or coaches who can guide are key. Not because you need to make it sound a specific way, or act it a specific way, but it is athletic, and like going to the gym, you only get better with each session, and are able to build and learn and go farther in the game. Plus, I think any artist only gets better with time and experience whether it’s out in the trenches or in classroom settings.

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

Iago really interests me at this point. I’m thrilled to do Macbeth and Jaques, both of which were bucket list roles for me. At some point, I would like to explore Lady M. and Paulina—I will never forget Mary Lou Rosato’s portrayal of her—when she said, “It is required. You do awake your faith” it was one of the most magical moments of theater I have ever experienced. As an artist, I strive to disturb the air for at least one moment, when time stands still, and she did this for me. It would excite me to explore any Shakespeare with a director who has a clear vision, and I definitely would love another crack at Cleopatra again in a couple of years.


The Public Theater Mobile Unit's Romeo & Juliet runs from April 11 to May 1 at the Public Theater in the East Village.


photos  Joan Marcus

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Women on Shakespeare: Rebecca Patterson on Taming of the Shrew

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

Maybe unique in NYC's theater ecosystem, the Queen's Company mounts English classics with all-female casts. This spring, AD Rebecca Patterson directs the company in Taming of the Shrew, and her approach to casting should throw an interesting light on the combative play. (Coincidentally, this summer in Central Park, Phyllida Lloyd will also mount an all-woman Taming.) Patterson took the time to answer a few questions about Shakespeare's play and the Queen's Company.

Let’s start with Taming of the Shrew, one of Shak’s most contentious plays. What drew you and the company to stage it in Spring 2016?

I felt the time was ripe to once again wrestle with our cultural legacy of institutionalized sexism — also on a more intimate interpersonal level the play is about selfish people who want things their way, and that gets in the way of love.

Have you directed Taming before?

Yes, I directed the play just over 10 years ago. At that time I was more interested in how the women in the play survive with their selves and humor intact in a world where they are just one step above property. Now I’m more interested in both the men and women and their relationships — how do we transform a history of dominance and submission into a future of egalitarianism and equality?

Some critics and artists view the misogyny of Taming as beyond redemption, but there are many positive interpretations, including feminist ones. How do you read the play’s view of women? What does ‘taming’ mean in your production?

Yes, of course misogyny is beyond redemption! But Taming of the Shrew is about people living and loving in a misogynistic world, Shakespeare himself is very sensitive to the dynamics of power and deeply empathetic to people who are getting the short end of the stick because of gender, class or wealth. In our production ‘taming’ has two meanings, the good one is being ‘gentled’, that is learning how not to be an asshole, and the bad one which is enforced obedience — we could all use a little more gentling and a lot less obedience.

The Queens Company casts only women in its shows. How does that gender dynamic affect the sexual politics of Kate & Petruchio? of Bianca and her suitors?

It doesn’t really effect the gender dynamics because the female actors play the men as men. It does allow the audience to see beyond the gender of the character to their humanity — it becomes about the dance of power between people, not just about men and women.

More generally, as a director, how do you speak with your actors about playing male roles? How do you hope the audience views the women onstage, and the women within the plays?

I talk to my actors about playing people who happen to be either men or women. What I hope is the audience sees the elemental humanity that is within all of us and experiences a world free of the artificial boundaries of gender.

Could you tell me about the Queens Company? What inspired the decision to cast only women in productions? What do you and your collaborators look for in potential scripts? Why produce classics in the 21st century?

I wanted to figure out the best way to direct classical plays for our contemporary world — all-female casting does two things, it opens up opportunities to underserved classically trained female actors and it cracks open the plays in subtle profound ways. We look for plays that play to the current zeitgeist making its way through our cultural memes — it’s often gut instinct that guides our script choices. The classics speak — literally they are language plays — and in our visual world I think we are hungry for the sound of another human voice. That’s why I direct the classics.

Let’s talk a little more about gender-blind casting and gender-exclusive casting. What benefits are there in collaborating solely with women on Shak and other dramas? What surprises have you discovered by casting women in traditionally male roles?

What is startling with a one-gender cast is how gender disappears and it becomes about the elemental humanity of the characters. Another surprise is because Shakespeare’s Renaissance men are quite different from contemporary men — they are both strong and emotionally expressive — contemporary women are actually better equipped to play Shakespeare’s male characters than their contemporary brothers. To understand Hamlet or Macbeth you need to see into the character’s soul — it is a degree of inner transparency that female actors often have an easier time accessing.


The Queens Company's Taming of the Shrew runs from April 16 to May 1 at the Wild Project on the Lower East Side.


photo 1  Ken Walker
photo 2  Bob Pileggi