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.
Smith Street Stages is Carroll Gardens' own outdoor troupe, with almost a decade of summer Shakespeare behind it. Last season the company produced a Tempest with a gender-swapped Prospero, with Kate Ross in the role. This summer she's taken on the role of Margaret in Richard III, a rich and memorable role despite its brevity. I emailed with Ms. Ross about her work in this show and last year's Tempest.
Let’s start with Margaret. What have you discovered about her that you find fascinating?
Her capacity for rage. Margaret only has two scenes in the play, but she comes on with guns blazing. I’m fascinated by her focus on Queen Elizabeth. Objectively, Elizabeth has wronged her and her family less than just about anyone else on that stage, but Margaret really lays into her more than she does Richard, even while recognizing Richard as the true villain, the troubler of the poor world’s peace. There is a lot of complex and contradictory things at play here to untangle — anger, resentment, gall, but also solidarity and some degree of kinship.
Queen Margaret is the largest part in Shakespeare’s complete works. How you view her role in Richard III? What sort of power does she have?
Her arc through all the Henry VI plays through Richard III is incredible. How amazing it would be to get to do them all! By the time we see Margaret in Richard III, her power is almost entirely gone. Her husband, child, title, and position have all been taken from her. All she has left is her language. She wields her language as a weapon to attack and pierce and humble and damn.
What sets her apart from Shakespeare's other powerful women, like Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, and Lear's daughters?
Margaret is unmoored by all she has been through. She doesn’t have ties to king or country or husband or children. The magnitude of the loss is immense, but it also affords her a kind of freedom that is, I think, unique. As she literally has nothing left to lose, she can just it rip. And she survives! The body count is high in this play, but Shakespeare has Margaret retire to France.
|Ross as Prospero in last summer's Tempest|
Last year you played the lead in Smith Street’s Tempest, also outdoors. How does that environment affect your performance?
It is definitely helpful to have had the experience of performing in Carroll Park before. It is a wonderful place to play, with the audience very present and involved, but it is challenging vocally. There is a real intimacy to performances here, with the audience very front and center, but the space is also very expansive — no walls or ceiling for your voice to bounce off of. It really requires an actor to keep his or her instrument in good shape!
Talking about Shakespeare more generally, what’s your perspective on his roles for women? Is there anything in his plays that’s beyond salvaging?
Shakespeare writes wonderful women — I just wish there were more of them! It has been liberating to see more cross-gender casting being done, because there is such a dearth of roles for women. While there are certainly problematic aspects of some of his plays, I don’t see anything that is beyond salvaging — it is just another puzzle to be solved. For example, I always considered Winter’s Tale to be problematic, as I never could buy into Leontes turning so completely against Hermione at the top with no reason. I just didn’t believe it. But when I saw Joby Earle do the part in a recent Smith St. Stage presentation of the play, I believed it utterly. The “tricky bits” are all just nuts to crack!
Do you have any other Shakespearean roles you’d love to play, or to go back to?
Oh, so many. I would love to get a chance to do Margaret in all the Henry VI’s. I would love a go at Beatrice, Tamora, Paulina, and Volumina. I think it would be amazing to give Prospero another shot in a few years — that is one I can imagine doing once a decade until I keel over.
Smith Street Stage mounts Richard III from Jun 7 to 25 in Carroll Park in Carroll Gardens. Tickets are free!
headshot Leal Vona
photos Chris Montgomery-->