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Wicked Wilde Shakespeare Festival is not where girls are girls and men are men

May 24, 2010

In the upcoming “Wicked Wilde Shakespeare Festival,” founder Lisa Wolpe will turn boys into girls, women into men, and audiences’ expectations upside-down. But it’s easier said than done. “If you mess up the silhouette, or gender markers or language of gesture, it’s a dead giveaway.”

Lisa Wolpe as Iago in Othello

It’s Wolpe’s 17th season leading the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company. The company will perform several hour-long adaptations in repertory, including Macbeth3, A Tyrant’s Tale, Lovers and Madmen, and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

Until just a couple years ago, Wolpe had cast all roles in her annual adaptations with women. But she became interested in bending genders when several of her male students “were really getting some acting chops. And with 12 interns (11 women and one young man from local universities and high schools) and 12 adult actors, half are men, half are women, we’re really taking a look at gender bending across the board. It’s a more inclusive summer, and I hope the results will be that we see more of what the boundaries of identity are.”

Men entered the picture, or the stage, in 2008. “I wrote an adaptation of Macbeth, which is a three person show,” says Wolpe. “We had a male Lady Macbeth. We took it to London and Edinburgh.” Wolpe also directed the production and played five characters. “Now, two years, later, it’s been done in Pittsburgh with three women and now I’m doing it with three men.”

It’s an interesting exploration of power dynamics. Wolpe says, “There’s a moment when Andrew Heffernan, as Macbeth, slaps Lady Macbeth [Kevin Vavasseur] across the face. Kevin’s natural instinct is to rear up – because he can be taller than Andrew – and punch him. For him to realize ‘Oh, I don’t even have that language in my heart’ is really a change.”

The Importance of Being Earnest

And an actor cannot rely on playing it as a drag queen. “It’s not the same thing because a gay man in drag really has such fabulous power and limitless scope, a kind of grandeur. Dame Edna or RuPaul – it’s not about having less power, it’s about having more playfulness. But the actor who plays a traditional female role is the person who is going to go mad because they have no power. Lady Macbeth will commit suicide because she can’t think of another option, just like Ophelia. And you can’t get there unless you have the experience of powerlessness, which is not the core experience of most men.”

It is not enough for a male actor playing a woman, or a female actor playing a man, to merely speak in a higher or lower voice. John Achorn plays Lady Bracknell. “I’m resisting like crazy any ideas of camping her up at all. I think the comedy comes out of her self-seriousness. I’m slowly adding in all the other feminine aspects of her.”

Achorn has played women in the past, in the English Panto Tradition. “It’s where the old dame is played by a character actor and the young hero is played by a young woman, an ingenue, like Peter Pan. But this is quite a challenge.”

Kevin Vavasseur, who plays Lady Macbeth, had never before taken on a female role. “I’d played a transgender person and I’ve done a campy, silly thing, but never before an actual, believable woman.” A voice coach suggested he “not worry about the actual tone, but let it come through the middle of the mask, the nose area. That’s a very vulnerable place that a lot of women talk from. She said to focus it there and let the sound go where it will.”

That may be the easiest element for Vavasseur. The process of capturing his character, he said, brought up some hurtful memories. “I’m a gay man and when I first got into it, all those things from childhood came up. ‘You’re a sissy’ and so on. I tried but I didn’t fit a lot of the “correct” gender associations, and caught a lot of flack for that in my youth. This process brought a lot of that back. I’m lucky to have a wonderful director like Lisa to guide me through.”

So how does a man, gay or straight, convince us he is a woman? How does a woman convince us she’s a man? Vavasseur says he approaches it as he would any other character. “I figure out what her happiness is and when she’s achieving it and when she’s not. The image that Lisa gave me for her was one of water. In that kind of patriarchal society, it’s an indirect thing. The body is indirect and angular and backwards, but it can never be straight. The hard part is finding heels for my size 10 feet!”

Vavasseur also is a muscular guy. “So it’s been tough finding the softness in that physicality and not being direct. It needs to be all about Macbeth and his happiness, not what I can achieve on my own.”

This is an important point, Wolpe says. “She wants to crown him. She’s worried about his masculinity but gets nothing for herself – it’s just a crazy, horrible sacrifice because it doesn’t do them any good. Her ideas about what a man is are skewed.”

As for the actor’s manifestations, Wolpe points to a physical language of gesture. “There’s also a personal delving of psychology. There are the requirements of the script where Macbeth has to have hand-to-hand combat and die a warrior while Lady Macbeth has to kill herself in her madness, her murky hell, so their trajectories have to bring them to a certain arc of characters, regardless of what they, as people, would normally do.”

And that, she says, may be why women want to play men. “They come face to face with a glass ceiling or a false boundary or a gate or a bar or a limitation. You get to keep moving in a compelling way forward, and that’s a release, a surprise as women straighten themselves out and walk directly toward what they want. They really have to unwind the habit of backing up, apologizing, retreating from people, not taking up space, being subterranean rather than direct. And the same thing for the guys – they have to learn how to be subterranean rather than direct, how to worry about what others are thinking about them because they’re dependent on others for certain things.”

The LA Women’s Shakespeare Company has depended on Lisa Wolpe for its adapted scripts. She wrote each one. “I’m pretty quick at it, but the thinking has taken thirty years. To study the plays for decades makes me hone in to a certain aspect of the theme. I know that if I do an hour adaptation of Macbeth, I know what I’m cutting, what I’m tracking through for.”

Andrew Heffernan and Kevin Vavasseur in Macbeth3 (photo: Brent Dundore)

Wolpe starts by taking out the things actors don’t like to say, what Wolpe calls “the less well-written bits and the repetitive bits. I consolidate certain characters, more of a conflation of an idea.” And that requires reimagining the original works. “I have to do that. I have to constantly ask the Shakespearean Dead Ones for permission because I’m changing things. But my justification is that the plays have been done thousands of times, so this new experiment isn’t insulting. It’s intriguing.”

It’s not that Wolpe doesn’t respect the work. “I’ve devoted my life to it. I love it so much.” But in The Winter’s Tale, for example, “I‘ve cut out all of the shenanigans in Bohemia and just kept the lost Princess part of it and the noble Prince. But all of the hoo-ha isn’t there, so it’s not the same play, really. It focuses on Henry VIII chopping the head off of Ann Boleyn and the surviving daughter, Elizabeth I. It’s a political story about tyranny, so I renamed it A Tyrant’s Tale because I cut out so much of it.”

Wolpe also renamed Macbeth, Macbeth3, “just to publicly acknowledge that I have taken liberties. By excising certain things, I highlight other things. In The Winter’s Tale, Camillo and Antigonus are two different guys that I’ve conflated into one. That creates certain pressures on the play that almost don’t hold. I also know I’m taking away five or six of Leontes’ complicated monologues, but I know that the soul of what he has to say is there.”

Each adaptation is about an hour long. The Importance of Being Earnest is the exception. “I expanded Earnest to a hour-fifteen because I keep putting more jokes back in.” Jokes aside, it’s all about the male-female paradigm. “What I like about the gender bending is that you see the essence of the soul of the person as opposed to just their physical beauty or their natural gender. When you get into the essence of what Macbeth is doing, the gender assigned for his actorly, human, temporal life is less important – he is transforming for the story into something extraordinary, a job any actor can do. He still has to do the cool things like knife fights and murders and upending of tables and slapping of his wife, so it’ll still bring that same disturbing stuff whether a man or woman is playing it.”

The Wicked Wilde Shakespeare Festival stars John Achorn, Cynthia Beckert, Linda Bisesti, Mark Bramhall, Laura Covelli, David Glassner, Andrew Heffernan, Scott McRae, Heidi Rose Robbins, Katrinka Wolfson, Lisa Wolpe, and Kevin Vavasseur.

May 29 through June 27 at The Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90403. Free parking at 808 Wilshire Blvd. (entrance is located on Lincoln Blvd.)

Ticket and schedule information here.

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