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Sexual Downplay

Measure for Measure with an all-women cast--directed by a man. Allison Eve Zell, a director herself, measures the gender-specifics. logo

From Measure for Measure
The Women's Shakespeare Company produces the Bard's works with all-female casts to give women the opportunity to play roles they are not usually able to play. The press release for their current production of Measure for Measure reminds us that this Shakespearean "problem play" is a "classic tale of politics, deception, and sexual harassment," and compares its content to that of yesterday's New York Post. This release also states that the production "is not [one] that deals with issues of sexuality," and goes on to say, in hopes of offering an explanation, that "the women will play male roles as men." Which leads me to ask: Can a woman cast in a role written for a man, even if she plays it as a man, truly avoid issues of sexuality? And, as a woman and a director myself, to wonder: Is it significant that the director of this all-women cast is a man?

"All women have experience as men," according to Kelly Ann Sharman, the company's artistic director and an actor in all their productions to date, who says she is proud to give voice to that experience in performance. She even speaks of the exclusively female cast providing good role models for girls. Despite these gender-conscious inclinations, however, she claims her motives for starting the Women's Shakespeare Company were purely practical and selfish. She cites the plethora of talented female actors, and her own presence among them, as her reasons for using all-female casts. In so doing, she curiously seems to downplay her own company's mission.

R. J. Tolan, the male director of Measure for Measure

, was also, at least initially, a little reluctant to address his experience of an all-female cast. "Much to my surprise," says Tolan, "there was very little difference." But before long he did hit on some differences. Tolan was occasionally struck by how supportive the environment was in comparison to his experiences directing men, where "it's easy to fall into a mode: a little bit competitive, back-slapping, shoulder tapping." In contrast, in this rehearsal room populated by women, he has felt "no need to put up fronts."

The actors confirm this sense of safety while rehearsing the most sexually charged scene in the play--when Angelo, a duke, blackmails Isabella, a nun in training, by offering to spare the life of her brother if she will have sex with him. Natalie Zea, who plays Isabella, blurts out in rehearsal, "Can you imagine what this would be like with a man?" As two women rehearsing this scene, Zea and Anne Marie Flavoy, who plays Angelo, skirted (excuse the pun) the usual, and sometimes prohibitive, sexual tension that exists when a male and female actor approach scenes of this nature. Tolan has experienced the unfortunate results of this kind of tension, the "need to keep keep it jokey." Without this awkwardness, Tolan suggests, more in-depth scene work was able to get done. And he expects this increased trust will not stop with the actor-actor relationship, but will involve the audience as well. "They'll be less threatened--it raises the toleration ceiling."

This safe environment, ultimately, affects Tolan himself. "It made me more comfortable to make the scene more suggestive than it necessarily would have been," he notes. It seems there is something to be said for having women play both Isabella and Angelo, and much of it seems to be related to sexuality. It goes without saying that "issues of sexuality" are quite abundant in any production of Measure for Measure, let alone, as these few incidents reveal, one performed by an all-female cast. As for having a male director at the helm, "The best you can hope for is being gender-neutral." These are the words of advice Tolan received before going into rehearsal from Chris Bellis, the male director who worked on the Women's Shakespeare Company's last production of Henry V.

Given the gender-specifics of this production's cast, however, is gender-neutrality an option? Why doesn't the Women's Shakespeare Company, which is committed to all-female casts, use exclusively female directors? Sharman says she hires the best director for each production, regardless of gender--a very different take from her approach to actors--and she also cites a lack of female directors.

I fear Sharman, and perhaps others, may not know where to look for us. Female directors can be found in the Lincoln Center Directors' Lab by the hundreds, and in the Directors' Forum of the Women's Project, which is made up of nothing but us. There is also The Roaring Girls, a group of directors within New Georges, an Obie-winning company dedicated to producing and developing new work by women. If these organizations, and recent Tony Awards (Gerry Hynes, Julie Taymor), are any indication, the theater community is finally serious supporting female directors. And the Women's Shakespeare Company is just too promising to get let off that hook.


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