In William Shakespeare’s latest venture into television, Julius Caesar comes with a big twist: The great Roman general is played by a woman. So are all of the play’s other characters.
Premiering Sunday on TPT Life, this modern-day adaptation is set in a women’s prison. And it’s the latest in a slew of highly acclaimed local and international productions offering women a chance to sink their teeth into juicy roles traditionally reserved for the opposite sex.
“Men have had it their way for so long, so why aren’t we allowed to get our hands on Shakespeare, the greatest voice in our culture?” said British acting powerhouse Harriet Walter. “It’s like a female pianist being told they can’t play Beethoven because they’re not a man.”
In addition to playing Brutus in the production airing this weekend for PBS’ “Great Performances” series, Walter tackled Prospero in “The Tempest” and the title character “Henry IV” for an award-winning trilogy at London’s Donmar Warehouse, all directed by Phyllida Lloyd. “I’m not saying we started the trend, but we have hit the wave,” Walter said.
That wave includes Lloyd’s 2016 Shakespeare in the Park production of “The Taming of the Shrew” with Janet McTeer as Petruchio, Glenda Jackson’s must-see turn as “King Lear” on Broadway, a West End adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” featuring Bobbie the Bachelorette and a gender-busting version of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Locally, the Guthrie Theatre just wrapped up a run of “As You Like It” with Sarah Agnew’s roguish Touchstone pursuing a same-sex relationship while Ten Thousand Things just finished “Into the Woods,” a production where several cast members alternate between male and female characters.
While gender swapping isn’t new — Mary Tyler Moore won a special Tony in 1980 for headlining “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” and Whoopi Goldberg made you forget Nathan Lane when she played Pseudolus in a 1997 staging of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” — it was discouraged in the recent past as the theater world drifted toward extreme realism, said Ten Thousand Things artistic director Marcela Lorca. That’s starting to change.
“As theater and media evolve, the strict rules of realism are breaking and artists are seeking imaginative interpretations to speak to diverse sensibilities,” Lorca said. “As times and styles evolve, we are now hungry for women’s expression and voices to rise.”
Feeling more powerful
When done correctly, the creative casting approach goes beyond the novelty act, offering intriguing new layers to the storytelling.
In Collide Theatrical’s current production of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” at Park Square Theatre, the title character is played by Brittany Keefe who, like all ballerinas, usually finds herself playing evildoers and ingénues.
“This particular character starts off innocent and then, through external social pressure to remain beautiful, goes down a dark path,” Keefe said. “I know men are affected by the ideals of beauty, but women are doubly so, and dancers triply so. It’s an exciting challenge to be immersed in this right now.”
For Walter, channeling authoritative figures like Henry IV and Brutus forced her to reflect on women’s increasing opportunities — and desires — to take charge.
“It’s so much more than giving girls parts,” said the Tony-nominated actress whose screen credits include “Downton Abbey” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” “I don’t know how many people have done it, but as soon as you speak a Shakespeare speech, you have power. To get that experience into the mouths of people who normally don’t even get noticed was fantastic. It serves as a metaphor for how power is in your reach. Doing these roles may have started off as a practical excuse, but it began to have a much wider implication and a much wider significance.”
It can also be a lot of fun.
“I must say when I was addressed as King it did seem to make me feel more powerful had I been called Queen,” said Michelle Barber who played Henry IV in a 2015 production at Ten Thousand Things.
As for female patrons, they might find themselves sitting a little taller in their seats while transported by actors they can relate to.
“When audience members see themselves represented on stage, there’s a profound sense of recognition,” Lorca said. “ ‘She could be me. I could be her.’ Whether it’s race or gender, this is a powerful truth.”
After student matinee performances of “As You Like It,” Agnew was inevitably approached by a teen choking back tears.
“She would say, ‘I’m a lesbian and it meant something to me to see a lesbian couple up there,’ ” said Agnew, who is preparing to direct an all-female version of “Measure for Measure” for the Minnesota Fringe Festival. “That was always moving.”
Walter also suggested that male actors challenge themselves to take on traditional female roles, specifically Gertrude in “Hamlet” or Cressida in “Troilus and Cressida,” Shakespeare characters who are “bellowed at by a man and never get to say anything back.”
In doing so, they may discover how much those characters are dependent on the male roles. At the very least, they’ll appreciate just how good they’ve had it.
“There are plenty of opportunities if you’re King Lear or Macbeth to run away with the show and never pay any attention to anyone else,” Walter said. “But you can’t do that as a female character. The man gives you your rationale, which is kind of restraining, and you have to work with that.
“One of the main things male actors could learn is to be less complacent and not say, ‘Oh, here’s boring old Hamlet again. And we’re going, ‘God, I’d love to do that.’ ”
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431• @nealjustin
Julius Caesar*When: 2 p.m. Sunday *Where: TPT Life