Monday, November 5, 2007

Sisters are doin' it for themselves

Marya Lowry returns from Duncan's murder in Macbeth.

All the local critics have hailed the Actors' Shakespeare Project's "all-girl" Macbeth (through November 18 at BU's Studio 102), as we've been trained to do now, almost reflexively, when we meet with gender experimentation in the arts. The trouble is, to my mind the production is rather troubled itself, and actually doesn't probe too deeply into the gender issues of Macbeth - just as last season, the ASP's all-male Titus Andronicus didn't get much farther in the gender studies department, either (though it was on the whole a stronger production) - while Boston Theatreworks' highly-praised Midsummer, which switched the genders of Titania and Oberon, likewise got little traction in its sex role mash-up. What's going on here? Same-sex Shakespeare is obviously a trend - only it's not really doing what everyone pretends: that is, examining and subverting gender.

Perhaps this is simply because Shakespeare does that already - indeed, his plays were designed to be performed by one gender in "disguise" - so the professorial overlay of gender "issues" somehow feels redundant. Of course it makes perfect classroom sense that since the female roles are "constructed" in Shakespeare (and in his own day were even played by men), the system can plausibly be reversed, with women "constructing" the men's roles. But alas, without a female Shakespeare in the offing, what this actually means in performance remains murky - indeed, it seems (so far) to simply mean that people try it, and then other people applaud, regardless of the outcome.

Which isn't to say that gender is not a central concern of Macbeth - just that its critique of gender fits uncomfortably with postmodern feminist tropes. Not that Shakespeare doesn't stick it to the men, and masculinity in general (he does, and how; indeed, has any female author produced as deep a critique of women as Shakespeare has of men?) - it's that, as usual, his analysis of the gender dynamic leads in surprising directions.

Shakespeare, for instance, is not much interested in personal sexual empowerment, for men or women - and even less interested in sex as recreation, or lifestyle enhancement. Sex leads to coupledom in Shakespeare, which leads implicitly to domesticity and children. It's a little shocking to realize that there is no positive example of a Don Juan figure in the whole canon - no romanticized rover, no happy heartbreaker, no babe magnet - and that Shakespeare's heroes, though often flawed, always submit to their woman in the end (even Kate and Petruchio basically strike a deal). Indeed, the submission of masculine energy to feminine guidance is probably the central lesson of Shakespeare's comedy.

Needless to say, this balance goes awry in the tragedies - yet feminists often seem incapable of seeing exactly why and how this is true. It's taken as a given, for instance, in most feminist constructions, that the "weird sisters" in Macbeth are women - yet there's more than a hint that they're actually something else (my favorite vision of them is by Alexander Marie-Colin, at left). When Banquo first encounters them, he gasps:

- What are these,
So wither'd and wild in their attire
That look not like inhabitants of the earth
And yet are on't? . . . you should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpet
That you are so.

Those beards are often forgotten in production, but they're a telling detail in a play that's obsessed with death and sterility. The "weird sisters" are both male and female, double-gendered - or rather, outside the "natural" order of gender. We should recall this detail as Lady Macbeth, while psychologically preparing to murder Duncan, cries out to the spirit world:

. . . unsex me here
And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty!

She is not asking to be masculinized (as other Shakespearean heroines do when faced with their powerlessness); she is asking to be un-sexed, removed from gender entirely - and thus pulled from the cycle of reproductive destiny. This is "empowering," yes, but only in a sterilizing way; as she and Macbeth struggle over their competing versions of "manhood" ("What man dare/I dare," Macbeth tellingly insists), she leaves unrevealed her awareness that her seduction will ultimately "un-man" him (note Ellen Terry crowns herself as Lady Macbeth, in John Singer Sargent's painting, above left).

Thus it's no surprise that the Macbeths, having stepped out of the natural order, can only be stopped by someone else outside said order - as the witches predict, "none of woman born/shall harm Macbeth." Macduff, it turns out, qualifies for the job, as he "was from his mother's womb/untimely ripp'd" - indeed, he's doubly qualified by the end of the play because his children have been killed; he, too, has been 'sterilized'.

Any successful production of Macbeth must make some account of this dynamic - a tough enough challenge with two genders in play, one would think. Still, it's possible that an all-female production could grapple with the issues honestly, rather than becoming punch-drunk with female empowerment - and at first the ASP version, which segues from the weird sisters' cries to Lady Macbeth screaming her way out of a nightmare, seems to have something like the right target in its sights. But director Adrienne Krstansky and her cast quickly lose any sense of thematic momentum. As Macbeth and his lady, Marya Lowry and Paula Plum (at left) have little sexual - or emotional - chemistry, and both seem to be groping for something, anything to play (Plum slides toward Noël Coward, while Lowry slips into a steady glare). Only Jacqui Parker pulls off a plausibly masculine comportment (as Banquo), while in several performances (Duncan and Ross, for example) it's hard to tell what the actresses are going for at all. And while the irregular playing space is handled imaginatively, the production mostly ducks the play's physical demands (its battles, murders, and relentless hand-to-hands).

What's most troubling is the high degree of editing; for some reason the text has been sliced and diced even more than Duncan. It's thus hard to buy the production as a "collaboration," as the ASP claims (since when do actresses "collaborate" away most of their lines?). Macbeth is already the shortest of Shakespeare's tragedies, but here it doesn't so much strut and fret its hour upon the stage as scramble pell-mell: minor characters are cut wholesale, Lady M's mad scene starts without its preamble, and Malcolm's pivotal scene with Macduff is stripped to just its spine. Even some of the famous soliloquies have been thinned out.

There are, it's true, some compensations. Marya Lowry gains her footing once Duncan's foul murder is accomplished (and she's essentially on her own). Her descent down the stairs of Studio 102 while staggering through "Macbeth hath murdered sleep," was suddenly gripping, and she held onto a dark, to-hell-in-a-handbasket hauteur till the end of the play. Plum, too, recovered somewhat in her mad scene, which had an intriguing time-warp subtext. Meanwhile Denise Cormier triumphed over her Madonna-concert costume (complete with power-boobs) in her big scene as Hecate, and fearlessly delivered her prophecies from a spread-eagled position (another moment where, briefly, the production touched down into the play's real concerns). Happily, Bobbie Steinbach made us forget about her weird take on Duncan by getting her laughs as the Porter (which is not so easy to do). And as with Titus, all should hail the design team - particularly Jeff Adelberg's striking lighting design, and David Wilson's evocative sound environment.

Still, in general the production remains a head-scratcher - as does the larger question of same-sex Shakespeare. How, exactly, should we approach these productions - and how should they approach the text? It would seem that in Shakespeare's day, when boys played girls, they attempted a high level of theatrical illusion, perhaps within a stylized framework somewhat like that of kabuki. Today's gender benders, however, make no such endeavor (as it generally seems to be harder for drag kings to pull off the deception than drag queens); the gender gap simply seems to be "the statement" in and of itself. Why this should be theatrically interesting, however (as opposed to politically interesting), remains an open question.

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