Friday, June 16, 2017

Women in Shakespeare: Cara Ricketts on Isabella

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 summer, Cara Ricketts plays Isabella, the nun thrown into a moral quandary in Measure for Measure. The production, at Theater for a New Audience, is directed by Simon Godwin, whose gender-bent Twelfth Night last winter was the talk of Shakespearean London. Ms. Ricketts has earned notice in Ontario, where she's played Portia, Imogen, and others onstage at the Stratford Festival. I emailed with her about her role in Godwin's NYC production.

Let’s start with Isabella. What have you discovered about her that you find fascinating?

Isabella, like all the ingenue roles in Shakespeare is not soft or weak or innocent. Isabella is a young woman with strong ideas that she truly believes in. As her story progresses in Measure for Measure she is forced to review her own personal laws to see if they still hold under the special circumstances that the play takes place. Not only does Isabella face these problems head on, she fights them, battles them to a death and looks for support.

Which scenes are the most challenging?

The scene that is most challenging is the Angelo scene. I'm fortunate to be working with Simon and Thomas who were will to listen to me and the other women in the room (stage management and assistant director Emma) as we discussed what it's like to be sexual harassed or assaulted as women. To explore that scene with the discussion we had and the viewpoints shared really opened the scene in a way that I hope the audience will be affected by. We were interested in telling the story of a woman put in that position truthfully.

What knots did the playwright leave for you to untangle?

What knots did Shakespeare not leave for me to untangle? Ha ha! I enjoy Shakespeare for that reason. I feel that there are hints in the text that can tell you a lot. The journey for me in rehearsal is to Nancy Drew the script until shows what I need to perform it.

I think one of the play’s themes involves Isabella’s autonomy. As an actor, how do you feel about the choices she makes in the play, and the ones taken out of her hands?

Isabella has fallen out of love with Vienna, for quite some time. She has decided to remove herself from it and devote her life to prayer. She enters the Poor Clares cloister which means she will have little to no contact with the world save for her fellow nuns. But she's about to dedicate her life to God and prayer and thoughts.

Isabella made the choice to not be a part of Vienna and immediately Shakespeare says no and throws her into the muck. Isabella doesn't want to play from the very beginning but her love for her brother pulls her in and dunks her in to the very world she is trying to avoid. I believe that it is not until Act 5 that she makes a choice that is not out of necessity. All her choices in the play are in service for her brother, she might think that she would give her brother up for her honor, but her actions speak the opposite.

What’s her role in the play’s action?

Her role in the plays action is Mercy. She begs for it and commands it only to later be asked for it from her enemy. If the Duke is Justice, Isabella is the other half that will bring the grace necessary to make Vienna right. It's why he asks for her hand, the Duke sees something right in Isabella to rule his dream for a new Vienna.

I read that you played Hedda Gabler in Toronto — does she have a kinship with Isabella?

Hedda is so much fun because she is a woman who makes decisions that people don't agree with. Especially as a woman people will want to tell you how to handle things or expect a certain kind of reaction. If Hedda had been a man there won't have been much of a play. Isabella has the same hurdle to overcome or rather ignore. She makes the decision after weighing her chastity to her brother's life and a lot of people judge her for that. Isabella is closer to someone like Lady M in that she is persuasive and she is good at it. Isabella is a force to be reckoned with and I believe this appeals to Angelo in that she is able to debate with him and keep up. Viola had to dress up like a man to exist in a man's world, Isabella dares to go as herself.

Turning to the play, what does Measure for Measure offer audiences that Shakespeare’s more famous plays don’t? Why is it a good play to revive now?

This is my first time working on Measure. It's interesting because it's a Shakespearian comedy, I believe one of his last. In Measure I can feel him stretch the genre as far as it seems to be able to go. At any moment if feels like it's going to be a tragedy but somehow it snaps back with the comedy ending of marriage and hope.

The ideas in this play ring to me, almost more than the characters. There is a meditation on death, then life and the play has such darkness and yet ends with forgiveness. So many times I find myself wondering "would I do that if I was in that situation?" It's a modern play in that way, it's very easy to see it as a play about those big ideas and it asks us to consider what we think of them: justice, and more importantly forgiveness. I read that Measure for Measure was first performed as part of Christmas celebration and I love that idea. On the birthday of the Jesus who died for our sins is a play about forgiveness.

It's a problem play in the old sense (defined by F.S. Boas) that we are looking at social problems and moral dilemmas. the problems and dilemmas are the same ones we face as a society today so the play has an impact. It asks the right question when we live in a time were we feel that society is divided.

Ricketts as Hedda Gabler
at Necessary Angel in Toronto, 2016
Talking about Shakespeare more generally, what’s your perspective on his roles for women?

What I like about Shakespeare is that his characters have universal journeys. Every once in a while something will ring out to me… lines like "a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear" but he also wrote Othello and Aaron the Moor as two different men. It's remarkable that he wrote such parts about women when he didn't have women to play them. I think the reason why so many of his female characters run out to the woods dressed as boys was so that the boys playing girls could act more freely once they ditched the dress.

Where are his weaknesses in depicting women?

I think my biggest complaint would be how he goes on about pale beauty, I know it was the rage at the time but it's kinda boring now don't you think? Shakespeare knew too, hence the 'Dark Lady' sonnets. Ha!

Do you have any other Shakespearean roles you’d love to play?

I never have parts that I wish to play. I never really understand the parts until I'm in rehearsal and I appreciate the life that other actors create when it comes to playing Shakespearean roles.

What about one of the traditionally male roles?

I think if I were to play a man's part I would like to feel what Hamlet goes through. To break down that text and peer into the engine of that part. Maybe King Leontes in Winter's Tale. I would like to play a male role at some point, just to feel it.


TFANA's Measure for Measure plays from Jun 17 to Jul 16 at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Fort Greene. Tickets at!


headshot  n/a
rehearsal photo  Gerry Goodstein
Hedda photo  Dahlia Katz

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