Guys and dolls
“Gender Bender” auditions
Men will be women, and women will be men. University of Nevada, Reno’s Nevada Repertory Company convened actors recently for the “Gender Bender” spring auditions. The company will present an all-female cast of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and an all-male cast of Ben Jonson’s Epicene, or the Silent Woman.
In Shakespeare’s time, all roles were performed by men, including those of the female characters.
Dr. Jim Bernardi, a professor in UNR’s Speech Communications and Theater Department, who will direct Epicene, says, “A lot of the humor and innuendo changes when you have men playing the roles as opposed to women playing them. I’ve seen a couple of plays that were done historically accurate, with men playing all the parts, and they were quite illuminating.”
Epicene is a battle-of-the-sexes play, wherein a man seeks a wife who will never disturb him by making any noise. There are also a group of educated women in the play who’ve decided to withdraw from their husbands and entertain suitors and lofty conversation on their own terms.
Bernardi opines that Shakespeare is the greatest playwright ever, but enthusiasm for the Bard has eclipsed other worthy playwrights of his time, like Jonson and Christopher Marlowe.
Sue Klemp, also a UNR theater instructor, will direct the all-female Macbeth. During the auditions, she assured female actors they didn’t need to adopt masculine voices in their readings. The challenge won’t be turning the women into “men” as much as reducing the telltales of female voicing and gesture. Klemp wants her actors to observe the differences in the ways men and women move and how they respond emotionally to different situations.
“The tendency for women, in general, when they get emotionally wrought, even if it’s anger, they raise their pitch,” she says, “where men might stay in a lower register or just get louder.”
In Shakespeare’s time, when a female character (played by a male actor, of course) impersonated a male, it was enough to simply have the female character wear pants to indicate the fraud. Today, Klemp notes, “There’s maybe a wider middle ground than there have been in some eras, when gesture and dress was more defined.”
One of the highlights of performing Macbeth is the fight scenes. The actors are already watching a combat training video, and they’ll get to work with combat choreographer Eric Hagen of the University of South Dakota.
Stage fighting is heavily choreographed. “It’s not a spontaneous brawl kind of thing, even though it might look like that on stage. It has to be choreographed step-by-step. Safety always has to be a consideration,” says Klemp.
The victim in a stage-fight maneuver is almost always the one in control, the one who “sells the move.” Sometimes light contact is made in a fight, but it’s up to the victim to convey the drama, or comedy, of that part of the fight.
It may seem odd to look back to 17th-century convention to explore contemporary notions of gender and identity. During the auditions, the female actors faithfully covered a lot of famous monologues. Male actors tended to rely on camping it up through cold readings but showed a lot of game. We’ll have to wait for the final productions to find out who really bends.