Monday, October 17, 2016

Women on Shakespeare: Mairin Lee on She Stoops to Conquer

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

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

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

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

Why it’s worth reviving in 2016?

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

What have you discovered about Kate Hardcastle?

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

What are the challenges in bringing her to life?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any dream-roles traditionally played by men?

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


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


photo #2  Marielle Solan

photo #3  Lee A. Butz

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