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On Macbeth, Gender and “Glamazons”

Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s 35th Anniversary Season continues with the opening of Macbeth. As in years past, the selection of plays for the season follows a pattern of producing one of the comedies and then one of the tragedies or a history play, or vice versa.

Usually one production is presented in traditional garb and one in modern dress. And so it follows that after the hugely successful first presentation of a very light-hearted musical version of Much Ado About Nothing, set in the 1940s, this Macbeth would, in contrast, settle on a dark and brooding medieval look, complete with long tunics and broadswords.

Speaking of broadswords, this traditional production has an awesome and very non-traditional twist, it features an all-female cast. Artistic Director Saul Elkin considered this choice as both a way to push the artistic envelope and also offer women actors a “reparation” of sorts for the inherent disadvantage women hold in the world of Shakespearian theatre.

As stated in the play’s program, Dr. Elkin reasoned that, “In three decades of our festival, hundreds of excellent actresses auditioned for whom there were no roles. To honor the great pool of actresses in Western New York, we will present AN ALL FEMALE CAST for Macbeth.”

Shakespeare in Delaware Park has always engaged in non-traditional casting, which sometimes would result in women being cast in men’s roles. Darleen Pickering Hummert, for example, once played Antonio (as a woman, Antonia) in Much Ado. In an infamous cross-dressing Hamlet, Meg Pantera played Benvolio while SDP favorite Bill Gonta was a fetching Ophelia.

But more often non-traditional casting has meant actors of color playing roles traditionally played by Caucasian actors. The late, great Tim White twice played Horatio (as an Afro-centric character) in Hamlet to universal acclaim. In last season’s Tempest, the very dark and handsome six foot tall Tafik Muhammad played Ferdinand, the son of Alonso, the very white and not so tall King of Naples (played by yours truly.) Talk about a suspension of disbelief, but it somehow worked.

macbeth inset one.jpgAlthough plum female roles certainly exist in almost every one of Shakespeare’s plays (Miranda, Juliet, Beatrice, Portia, Titania, Cleopatra, Kate, and Lady M all come to mind), the fact is the deck is stacked against women’s participation in Shakespearian theatre, and has been historically limited on both sides of the footlights. Only recently have women begun to regularly assume the production reins as producers and directors.

As anyone who has seen the movie Shakespeare in Love knows, in Shakespeare’s own time women were forbidden to appear on stage at all. The female roles were all played by men or boys.

Gender bending was something of an art form for Mr. Shakespeare, his plays are filled with women disguised as men–Twelfth Night, As You Like It or The Merchant of Venice, for example. Imagine the confusion in those early days, with men dressed as women pretending to be men, something like a Mardi Gras parade in iambic pentameter.

Men playing women gave actually gave rise to a very stylized method of acting. For an interesting glimpse of these techniques and a good study of King Charles II’s allowance of women to take the stage, and the consequences thereof, see Stage Beauty. This 2004 film is based upon the stage play The Compleat Female Stage Beauty by Jeffery Hatcher.  

This is not the first time Macbeth has been performed by an all-female cast. When I first heard about the all-female choice for this production, I must admit my initial thought was ” gimmick.” In hands less capable than those of director Eileen Dugan, that might have been the sad fate of this production. However, Ms. Dugan has been tenacious in shaping her vision of Macbeth’s story, and that story, not the gender of the actors, has been the focus and ultimately her triumph.

Indeed, the story is so well structured here, and so clearly told, the fact that the actors are women becomes, essentially, a non-factor. Kudos. What this means is that the actors have been given a rare opportunity to truly practice their craft, to create fully-realized characters who even transcend the actors’ own biological reality. That’s a great challenge for an actor and it certainly makes for great Shakespeare.

The proof of this notion lies in the observation that after about 15 minutes (just about the same time one’s ear begins to acclimate to Shakespeare’s language), the novelty of women playing men’s roles begins to slip away, and Macbeth becomes Macbeth. One knows the actors are women, to be sure, but it’s no longer about women pretending to play men, rather it’s about the story–The Bard’s great story of blind ambition, raw political power, with men, women and children portrayed as pawns in a life or death game to dominate their world.

macbeth inset two.jpgMs. Dugan’s efforts to subdue the casting novelty in favor of the storyline is assisted by the production’s gender-neutral look. The medieval costumes (by designer Dixon Reynolds ) cloak the female form to some degree, as does the unisex Prince Valiant look of the long hair. The casting of more physically dominating women in the most dominant roles is apparent as well.

And, at the risk of sounding like the old chauvinist I am, one might think the ambitious, no-holds-barred fight choreography would be beyond the physical capabilities of women. Not so. The troupe has become the self-proclaimed “Glamazons”, and rightfully so. The impressive sword fights and the chilling murder scenes are executed with extreme physical dexterity, really as good as any men’s fights I have seen designed by fight choreographer Steve Vaughan.

None of this is to say that the production fails to celebrate women actors, nor include a female sensibility in the telling, merely that such homage has not come to dominate the task at hand, which is to tell the story of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Director Dugan notes that of all Shakespeare’s evil-doing characters, only Macbeth expresses real doubts about his actions. Iago and King Richard III, for example, show no remorse in their unmitigated marches toward their respective goals. Macbeth, on the other hand, can be portrayed as more thoughtful, more introspective. Is this a female trait? I don’t know, perhaps, but this reticence is not always a side which directors of Macbeth allow an audience to see.

There have been several productions of Macbeth in Delaware Park, most recently in 2002, when New York-based actor Greg Stuhr took on the title role. That Macbeth was driven by an overriding  militaristic urge to control the social decay which surrounded him. A 1994 production featured Richard Wesp and the current production’s director, Eileen
Dugan, as the Lady M in an occult-soaked production (coincidentally directed by another woman director, Nancy Doherty.) That Macbeth was caught is a web of fateful witchcraft which inevitably sealed his fate. Macbeth literally died on a tarot card in that one.

The first Macbeth in Delaware Park was produced in 1981. It featured the aforementioned Bill Gonta as the Scottish Laird and the wonderful actress, Janet Aspenwall, as Lady Macbeth.  Set in a Banana Republic, it was a take-off of the contemporaneous “Evita”.  That production was noted for the monsoon weather (ducks actually nested underneath the stage that summer) and a Jeep which accidentally slid into the stage during an uncontrolled entrance. That Macbeth was largely driven by his ambitious, power hungry wife, which is probably the most common choice of portrayal.

macbeth inset three.jpg The current Macbeth, however, allows the character some room to reflect upon his action. He may still have a tiger by the tail, but this Macbeth–played with great sensitivity by New York-based actor Kate Konigisor–stops to smell the roses before he chops them down. The “to-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow” speech, spoken as Macbeth nears his denouement, illustrates that this is no mere cardboard cut-out puppet here. Choices, mostly bad ones, were made and these are the consequences. Very, very well done.

This has clearly become a very tight ensemble in a very short time. The huge stage in Delaware Park oozes with chemistry. There are too many stand-out performances to mention all, but a special nod to Katie White, who owned the stage every time she strode across it as Macduff. Totally in the moment, Ms. White has become one of the region’s most dependable and powerful actors. If for nothing else, go to see her.

The witches, Julie Kittsley, Mary Moebius and Chrissy McDonald, made a wonderful set of Weird Sisters. With their arched movements and jarring speech, they set the perfect tone at the top of the play, with a whole murder of crow-like witches inhabiting the stage. The real pay-off came in the cauldron stirring “double, double toil and trouble” speech which, with music designer Tom Makar’s creepy soundtrack, earned a round of applause.

I think it’s important to note Director Dugan has made these witches three dimensional beings, that is, something that could occur in nature. Black magic was a dangerous reality in Elizabethan England, accusations were rampant and many people paid with their lives. Too often the witches in Macbeth are either a metaphor or an almost comic put-on. These sorceresses were ominous, powerful beings whose actions could influence men, and quite believably convinced Macbeth, falsely, of his own invincibility. I have never seen the witches done as well (and I have seen a lot of them.)

Other notables include Los Angeles-based actor Josie DiVincenzo as a very sultry, lethal Lady Mabeth; Pamela Rose Mangus as the venerable Duncan; and Lisa Vitrano, whose surprisingly subtle Banquo stands in stark contrast to the more flamboyant characters which are her usual stock-in-trade. Veteran actors Caitlin Coleman and Jen Fitzery as the Doctor and Menteith, respectively, added some well grounded gravitas too. Jenna Winnett did a fine comic turn as the porter. Amelia Kraatz was compelling as the doomed–and not a little bitter about it–Lady Macduff.  

All the other young women actors, Hanna Lipkind as Malcolm, Lisa Dee as Donalbain, Mary Boatman as Lennox, Megan Callahan as Ross, Anne Roaldi as Seyton, Eva Tashjian, as an impressive Caitness, Annette Daniels Taylor, also impressive as Siward and Mary Beth Lacki as his son, the young Siward, handled the language and the weapons very ably. Even the youngest members of the troupe, Isabelle Longfellow and Justine Rodriguez were confident in both speech and manner.  

This is a cogent, well thought out production. It was in excellent shape on opening night and it will be interesting to see what a week or two brings.

Directed by Eileen Dugan, Lighting Design by Chris Cavanagh, Fight Choreography by Steve Vaughan, Costume Design by Dixon Reynolds, Music by Tom Makar. Set/Props by Lynne Koscielniak and Dyan O’Connell

Macbeth runs through August 15th, 7:30pm, every day except Mondays.

Neil Garvey,
attorney/actor/writer, is a native East Auroran and 30 year resident of
Buffalo’s Elmwood neighborhood. Long involved in the cultural &
civic life of Buffalo, he has served on several theaters & civic
boards, including the Delaware Park Steering Committee. The first board
chair of Shakespeare in Delaware Park, he served as the company’s first
CEO and appeared in or produced some 25 Shakespeare plays. Stage credits
include Shea’s, Studio Arena, The Kavinoky, The Irish Classical, Road
Less Traveled, and played Santa Claus for the BPO Holiday Pops for the
past eight seasons.

All images courtesy of Dan Walker
Lead and First Inset: Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Kate Konigisor, Josie DiVincenzo
Second Inset Image: Pamela Rose Mangus as Duncan
Third Inset Image: Macduff receives  word of his family’s murder : Hanna Lipkind/
Malcolm, Katie White/ Macduff, Megan Callahan/Ross

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