One-Sided Battle of the Elizabethan Sexes
By DINITIA SMITH
October 30, 2005 – The New York Times
In a typical production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, there can be more than 30 male characters and only 4 female; in Henry IV, Part 1, of the 27 or so speaking roles, 3 are for women (and one of these speaks only Welsh). And in a performance of Marlowe’s Edward II, you might see scores of men but only 3 women.
For women who long to play some of the great theatrical roles in the English language, those are not good odds. Which is why Rebecca Patterson decided in 2000 to found the Queen’s Company, an all-woman classical theater troupe.
“Fifty percent of Actors’ Equity is female, but opportunities for classically trained female actors are minute,” said Ms. Patterson, 44, who is directing their newest production, The Taming of the Shrew, which opens Saturday at Walkerspace in TriBeCa.
It’s “All female! All the time! No apologies!” as the group’s motto says. (Well, maybe not all the time. The company is a loosely affiliated group that assembles for productions; many members have day jobs. Ms. Patterson, for instance, writes theater grants.)
Single-sex acting companies, of course, were the norm during Shakespeare’s time – though in that case, the sex was male. And today it is not uncommon to find all-male troupes, like the renowned British company Propeller, which is performing The Winter’s Tale at the Brooklyn Academy of Music starting on Wednesday.
Propeller’s director, Edward Hall, said in an interview from London that single-sex performances in general “provide a fresh, vigorous new way of looking at the plays.” For instance, Mr. Hall said, because Shakespeare depends upon language more than physical contact, an all-male love scene “becomes intensely erotic and beautiful because it’s suggestive.”
“It could be just as applicable to an all-female cast,” he continued. “I don’t think there are any rules to the theater, ever.”
Ms. Patterson goes one step further to argue that female actors can sometimes play male Renaissance roles better than men.
“Shakespeare’s male characters combine both power and emotional openness,” she said. “Today, men are taught to be strong and not to be connected to their emotions. When Clint Eastwood gets upset you just see a bit of his jaw clenching. With a man, it can be a monotone performance until he gets angry.”
The Taming of the Shrew may seem an odd choice for the Queen’s Company because it is often considered a deeply misogynist play. Baptista, the father of two daughters, decrees that before anyone can woo his younger daughter, Bianca, his older daughter, the spitfire, Kate, must be married. Kate meets her match in Petruchio, who in the end tames or breaks her wild spirit. Her final speech, “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,/ Thy head, thy sovereign,” has often been taken as a reflection of Shakespeare’s own views.
“It’s difficult for a lot of women to get into it,” Ms. Patterson said. So she rearranged and cut the text. Kate’s speech is now recited both at the beginning by a man and at the end by Kate herself. “The idea is to get it out of the way so you can focus on Kate and Petruchio,” she said.
“I hate to dismiss it as simply a misogynist piece,” she continued. “Kate is actually not helpless. The relationship between Kate and Petruchio is a struggle, a dynamic. Kate doesn’t give up her struggle. They teach each other to love.”
The company, known for its rowdy and ribald productions, has received good reviews in recent years. Referring to its 2003 production of Much Ado About Nothing, The New Yorker said, “The actresses understand Shakespeare’s language and adroitly put across his jokes.”
People often assume that company members are lesbians, Ms. Patterson said, but that is not necessarily the case. “Primarily, the artists are straight,” she said. “Some of the women are butch, but most are quite femme.”
To prepare her actors, Ms. Patterson gives them a primer on gender signifiers, before rehearsals begin. “In the subway, men have a wide stance,” she said at dinner after a recent rehearsal, citing one example. “His shoulders are forward, his legs wider, he takes up more space. With shoulders forward he’s also not as vulnerable.”
“Women shrink, cross their legs, become petite – it’s a learned posture,” she added. “When they’re standing, women torque their hips in and their shoulders out. It opens up her heart, makes you more vulnerable. It’s interesting, when you come to the median line and you put them both together, which is the Renaissance male.”
Petruchio in the production is played by an actress named Samarra. At the rehearsal, her long dreadlocks were tied in a ponytail. With her curvaceous figure, she looked distinctively female. Yet when she leapt and bound across the stage, she seemed like any over-eager testosterone-driven adolescent boy.
And, said Ms. Patterson, once she wears a beard, the transformation will be complete. “All of a sudden the audience forgets it’s a woman.”
Kate is performed by Carey Urban, a small, slender figure, who played men in the company’s production of Much Ado About Nothing.
Bianca, the perfect sister who never talks back, is played by a blow-up doll. “I actually had a hard time finding an actor who wanted to play her,” Ms. Patterson said.
Samarra said that when she performs Petruchio, “I’m not thinking I’m going to play a man.”
“I focus on the whole person, who he is and what he wants,” she said.
“Petruchio is a former soldier – he’s different from a man who is a bureaucrat,” she continued, adding. “As Petruchio, I want to be able to have the fight, because before, I was a soldier. But the point is not to break Kate. We both learn a lesson about human nature.”
Ms. Urban said: “Kate is better at being a man than any of the men in the play are. She overpowers them. She has the chutzpah to do it. She’s waiting for a man who will be her match.”
“In the end Kate says, ‘Thy husband is thy lord,’ ” Ms. Urban continued. “She doesn’t say she is defeated.”
Ms. Patterson said, laughing, “The Queen’s Company makes misogyny user-friendly,” not a favored stance of radical feminists. “The group doesn’t demonize male behavior,” she said. “The women don’t get off smelling sweeter than men.”