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Why Can't a Woman Look Like More a Man?

Filichia wonders why women playing men on stage can't be a little more believable. logo
Rosario Dawson as "Sebastian"
in Two Gentleman of Verona
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
While we were making plans to see Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Delacorte Theater, my girlfriend Linda -- who's a big fan of Shakespeare's tragedies and histories but is less enthusiastic about his comedies -- asked me, "Is this another one of those plays where women dress as men and nobody notices?"

Well, yes, it is. (In this case, Julia and Lucetta transform themselves into Sebastian and Cesario.) I keep telling Linda that, back in Shakespeare's day, the artifice must have worked nicely because real men were playing the women who were playing men. "Fine," she snarled. "If we were still in Elizabethan times, I'm sure I could enjoy the show. But now those are real women up there playing men, and I have no patience with the concept. Why doesn't anyone on stage figure out that a woman's dressed as a man when it's so obvious to me?"

I've mentioned to her that she should blame the Puritans, because they're the ones who put a halt to men playing women. They quoted Deuteronomy 22:5, who said, "A woman shall not wear men's clothing [for it is] an abomination." (Speaking of abominations: Isn't it ironic that Deuteronomy is the name of a character in a musical in which actors don't dress up as members of the opposite sex but as members of a different species entirely?)

Linda isn't alone in her feelings. Over the years, I've heard many theatergoers complain when no one on stage sees through the woman-dressed-as-man ruse. I'm also reminded of that summer day in 1976 when I was watching The Lucy Show with my four-year-old. It was yet another episodes where Lucy was dressed in some outrageous outfit, trying to put one over on clueless Mr. Mooney. Suddenly I heard my son cry out in delight, "Oh, it's Lucy!" You mean a young child could see through the disguise but Mr. Mooney couldn't?

Yes, we all know about "suspension of disbelief." But, all too often, a theatergoer's suspension would have to be greater than any that Danny Zuko endured at Rydell High to believe a disguised woman on stage can really convince the other characters that she's a man. And this is not only a problem in Shakespeare. Remember Peter Marks's New York Times review of Victor/Victoria when Raquel Welch came in? It began, "Oh, come on!"

I was glad that Linda didn't accompany me last month to see a production of Marivaux's Triumph of Love. Given that leading lady Mandy Olson needed to be disguised as a man, I don't understand why the costume designer went out of her way to put the actress in tight tights while all the men in the production wore baggy, concealing pants. In the film version, at least, Mira Sorvino as Agis made an effort to roll up handkerchiefs and stuff them into her pants; here, you could tell at a glance that Olson was no man at all.

But give Marivaux credit for one thing: Agis doesn't fool everyone. When she goes to meet the dour Hermocrate, he says, "Why're you dressed like a man?" Good! But where are the brains in the other people's heads? And the eyes? And, for that matter, the ears? This untriumphant Triumph was staged outdoors and unmiked, so Olson had to use every millimeter of her vocal cords to project to the back row of the gigantic house. As a result, she always sounded like a woman.

A musical that I greatly admire is Sammy Buck and Dan Acquisto's Like You Like It, an update of As You Like It (as you might have inferred). There's a peck of clever stuff in the modernization, including the authors' sending a disguised Rosalind to Arden Mall rather than the Forest of Arden. But as much of a good experience as I've had each of the three times I've seen the show, I've never bought any of the three leading ladies as men. I keep hoping that Rosalind will go into the mall's electric shaver store each day, empty out the sample razors, and rub the shavings on her face so she'll look more butch; that's how desperate I am for the lass to convince everyone that she's a guy.

You know who did look credible in female-to-male disguise? Barbra Streisand in the film Yentl. But that's because she was supposed to be playing a boy, not a man. The facial features of a woman who's 40, as Streisand was when she made the movie in 1983, are hardened enough to look a little more masculine -- at least, enough for a teenage lad. And then there was that City Center Encores! performance of L'il Abner where I heard a woman on her way out of the theater telling her friend how much she'd enjoyed the guy who played Marryin' Sam. Except it wasn't a guy at all, but Lea DeLaria.

This brings up an interesting point. Why not have a woman who's pretending to be a man be played by a masculine-looking woman? Near the end of most of these shows, the woman rips off her disguise and reveals her true sex to the man, who immediately beams that this friend of his can now be someone much more to him. I say the scene would have more poignancy and power if he still loved this woman even though she didn't turn out to be a looker. Wouldn't we admire the hero even more if he stayed in love with the lady because of her inner beauty and all the other characteristics that made him like him -- I mean, her -- in the first place? As my friend Ellen Sadowksi says, "If you love the person, you love the body."


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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