On August 4, Judith Shakespeare Company’s gender-reverse Two Gentlemen of Verona will open at TBG Theatre at 312 West 36th Street in Manhattan. It’s been six years since this dedicated and forward-thinking company has given us a full-length Shakespearean production, and no one is happier than this former NYC thespian that JSC is producing again.
Artistic Director Joanne Zipay has such a fire in her belly for Shakespeare that she lights up her actors who in turn burn up the stage. I know, because I used to work with Judith Shakespeare once upon a time, before babies and a move to the Poconos. I never had much Shakespearean training, not even in college where I earned a BFA in Music Theater. I graduated afraid of the classics, especially Shakespeare. After one season working with JSC as an apprentice, not only had Joanne made his language accessible, she made it exciting, fulfilling, and my favorite to perform.
Joanne started JSC in 1995 after growing frustrated with how other companies were treating the material, and after experiencing first-hand a lack of creative casting opportunities for women in classical theater. She never intended to be a producer or director. She had a master’s degree from the Old Globe in San Diego and was pursuing a career as an actor. But she felt a need to start her own company—to create exciting, vital, visceral, and accessible classical theater that modern audiences could connect with. The company’s mission statement reads, “committed to bringing Shakespeare’s language to life with clarity and vitality, while expanding the presence of women in classical theater.”
That last part is where it gets really fun. Joanne has always cast women in interesting ways, including using women to play all the kings in The History Cycle—a series of eight plays that the company produced from 2002–2004—about 100 years of war and five different English kings. It’s not that the role is now a woman; it’s that the actor playing the role is a woman. Women go through movement and voice workshops and learn how to take the stage as men, and in the case of a gender-reverse production like Two Gents, the opposite happens, too. For the audience, this makes the text jump off the stage in a new way. For the actors, nuances previously ignored inform performances and make it fresh and interesting, and the biggest winner is the audience.
Joanne says that if the actor really knows what she/he is saying, then the audience will, too. JSC actors achieve this with the essential text sessions that start every rehearsal period. The actors are required to “gloss” their scripts, which basically means to translate all lines into modern-day English. Armed with the Shakespeare lexicon, historical references, and numerous editions of the script, Joanne and the actors piece together what each character is saying and why. Information is gathered from all sources to inform each performance. The actors don’t indicate every discovery, but those discoveries in the text sessions make the performances multidimensional and give them depth. The audience leaves feeling fulfilled, not just because they understood the action of the play, but because the characters reached out to everyone.
Why a gender-reverse Two Gents now? “The last Shakespeare projects we worked on as a company were serious, heavy, dark, violent,” Zipay says of her three-year project The History Cycle, which was followed by a “Shakespeare Unplugged” Concert Performance of the Roman-style tragedy Coriolanus in 2008. “It’s been awhile since we did something frothy, silly, light, buoyant—plus we’ve never done a romantic comedy in gender-reverse. It appealed to me as a great challenge as well as a lot of fun. And I think with the state of the world right now, a little laughter is always appreciated!”
As an actor, working gender-reverse can be exciting and challenging, and it can also have some positive effects on everyday life. While working on JSC’s gender-reverse production of Julius Caesar, movement coach Elizabeth Mozer helped me the most when she explained the way in which men take up space, while women try to make themselves as small as they can. Just watch people on the subway. Women don’t want to bother anyone, yet men tend to spread their legs as wide as possible. Eileen Glenn, who first worked with JSC playing a male character in Henry VIII says, ”For me there have been many payoffs in doing reversed gender work, not the least of which is saying all those wonderful lines usually reserved for men. Physically, it is the actual adjustment to take up and own more personal space. This is a lesson now carried out in my everyday life.” The same happened for me. I learned to “own more personal space”. It helped my character and it strengthened my attitude toward myself. For years afterward, any time I needed a little mental pick-me-up, I just recited one of Marc Antony’s speeches and I instantly felt more in control.
Jane Titus, a long-time member of the company and one of its leading actresses (Cassius in Julius Caesar, Prospero in The Tempest) as well as a director and teacher, says, “As a female actor, I survived my 30s and 40s because of cross-gender acting. There are few enough roles in the theater for women, and in early mid-life they really dry up. Luckily the male roles of the same age only increase in complexity and depth. Having the roles for men in early mid-life opened to me enriched those years immeasurably.”
Joanne, who is—as often—directing as well as dramaturging this production, is returning to the commedia dell’arte she has used so effectively in other productions—like the company’s silent-film era Comedy of Errors. “We’re calling this ‘modern commedia’,” she says when talking about Two Gents. “It’s a style we’re developing and defining together as an ensemble through the rehearsal and the design process.”
Elizabeth Mozer is on board once again, guiding the actors through their physical work on the show—helping to bring in the elements of commedia that will most help to bring to life this romantic and bittersweet story of young love. Jane Titus will be working with the actors on their cross-gender characterizations. Of cross-gender work she says, “I love this work because it explores one of our most profound areas of proscription—that of gender identity. Very few people are indifferent to this work—it elicits profound reactions in many different directions. To me, that is one of the reasons we are artists, to take the viewers on a journey, one way or another. It makes this work deeply satisfying.” Alithea Hages-Phillips, who began with JSC as an acting apprentice in 1995, and who is now the Head of Voice at the Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting in Manhattan, will coach the actors vocally. Dan O’Driscoll, Fight Director, will stage the fights as he’s done for every show since the company began. Designing this eclectic, energetic production are Joshua David Bishop (sets), Lois Catanzaro (lights), and Ashley Betton (costumes).
Another main ingredient to any JSC production is live music. It’s amazing what live music can do for a production. The percussion for Julius Caesar, the piano for Comedy of Errors, the electric guitar for Richard 3, all set the mood and tone of the play. Again the audience wins, carrying home a more fulfilling experience. Two Gents will have guitar music composed specifically for this production by Austin Moorhead and performed live at each show.
The cast of Two Gentlemen of Verona includes Sheila Joon as Proteus, Alvin Chan as Julia, Rachael Hip-Flores as Valentine, Hunter Gilmore as Silvia, Alexandra Devin as Lance, Suzanne Hayes as Speed, Marie Bridget Dundon as the Duke of Milan, Bill Galarno as Lucetta/Outlaw, Amy Driesler as Turio, Natasha Yannacanedo as Sir Eglamour/Antonio/Outlaw, Peggy Suzuki as Pantino/Host/Outlaw, and Candide as Crab the dog.
Yes, there’s even a real live dog. Joanne cast Candide after seeing him “perform” the role of Crab in an audition with his owner, Alexandra Devin, cast as the dog’s clownish owner, Lance. “We took the package deal, the vaudeville team, as it were,” Zipay says. “But Candide happens to be a male dog, same as the role he plays, so Crab is the only role in the show not cast gender-reversed. It just worked out that way. But everybody always asks.”