Gender-reverse casting lets us see familiar characters in new ways, and can make transparent a play’s problematic sexual politics.
Much Ado About Nothing
When: To Feb. 16
Where: The Cultch Historic Theatre
Tickets and info: From $24, at thecultch.com
Writers and directors have been playing with gender in Shakespeare’s work for some time. Witness Ann-Marie MacDonald’s 1988 comedy Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), currently at Jericho Arts Centre. But the pace of change has definitely accelerated.
In Ravi Jain’s Prince Hamlet, lately at the PuSh Festival, actresses played all the men except Claudius, with a male actor as Ophelia. Recent productions of Much Ado About Nothing at University of B.C. and Bard on the Beach have given some male roles to women: Don Pedro’s villainous brother Don John, for example, was transformed to Dona Johnna, his wicked sister.
One reason for this trend is practical: Hamlet has only two female characters, Much Ado only four. Actresses need a chance to play the juiciest parts, and predominantly female audiences want themselves reflected on the stage.
Gender-reverse casting lets us see familiar characters in new ways, and can make transparent a play’s problematic sexual politics. In the #MeToo era this is as important an element of woke theatre as racial diversity.
Vancouver’s Classic Chic Productions advertises itself as “Chicks bringing class to the classics.” Following their all-female Winter’s Tale, Glengarry Glen Ross and Corleone: A Shakespearean Godfather, the company has tackled Much Ado About Nothing with 11 actresses playing all the roles.
Substantial pleasures are to be had in director Rebecca Patterson’s adaptation, but not many surprises.
Patterson has trimmed the script but otherwise left the characters and situations unchanged. Women play the male roles in men’s clothes, the female roles in dresses. (But why some characters are in bare feet and others in boots is a mystery).
As the play’s witty, reluctant lovers Beatrice and Benedick, who mock love and each other until they inevitably melt, well-matched Christine Wells Campbell and Corina Akeson are quick, charming and funny, though without much romantic chemistry.
Akeson has a little more fun, hiding in the audience while Benedick’s friends Claudio (Adele Noronha), Don Pedro (Kayla Deorksen) and Leonato (Barbara Pollard) set him up to fall for Beatrice. She also handles Benedick’s soliloquy rationalizing marriage (“The world must be peopled!”) with great charm.
The central plot involves Leonato’s daughter Hero (Sereana Malani), set to marry Claudio until dastardly Don John (Sara Vickruck) fools the men into believing that Hero has been screwing around. Claudio then rejects her and Leonato wishes her dead.
It takes sensible Friar Francis (Bronwen Smith) and the bumbling justice of malapropistic Constable Dogberry (Vickruck again) to save the day.
Noronha and Pollard in particular turn in strong performances, but the play’s sexist crux remains fully intact. Though Claudio, Leonato and Don Pedro eventually come around to acknowledging Hero’s innocence, they suffer little genuine regret and no consequences for their poor judgment or leering, locker-roomish misogyny.
Surprisingly for a feminist production, male attitudes and behaviour towards female sexuality never get seriously interrogated here.
With a few exceptions — Vickruck’s wild thrash-punk moment as Don John, the men’s dance entrance to the masked ball, CJ McGillivray’s wonderfully energetic hybrid Bollywood/Western soundtrack — Patterson’s direction is as straight as the play’s sexual politics.
What a treat, though, seeing some of our most talented actresses fully commanding Shakespeare’s stage in the intimate confines of The Cultch.
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