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