As anyone who has studied a little bit of Shakespeare knows, all those wonderful, complex female characters in his plays were, in his day, played by men. Juliet, Lady Macbeth, Titania, Ophelia and Viola: during the 16th and 17th centuries, they were all cast with male actors, since it was considered immoral to have women on stage.
Nowadays, of course, women play female roles — unless you’re doing what Opera House Arts at the Stonington Opera House is doing with their coming production of “Much Ado About Nothing” and asking lots of interesting questions about gender and society. OHA’s “Much Ado” is a throwback to the Elizabethan era, in that it features male actors (Craig Baldwin and Aryeh Lappin) in the roles of Beatrice and Hero, the two lead female characters, who are pursued romantically by Benedick and Claudio (Tommy Piper and Tim Eliot).
New for OHA this summer is the fact that “Much Ado” will run in repertory with another play, “Elizabeth Rex,” a play written in 2000 by Canadian writer Timothy Findlay. That play imagines what might have happened had Queen Elizabeth I interacted with Shakespearean actors after they performed at her palace. It takes place on the eve of the execution of the Queen’s lover, the Earl of Essex, and echoes many of the themes present in “Much Ado” — what it means to be a man or a woman, and what it means when those lines are blurred.
With both productions, the look and feel is decidedly traditional. There’s Elizabethan costumes, music and sets, unlike most other OHA summer Shakespeare productions, which tend to take a more contemporary or progressive approach to plays like “Measure for Measure” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” And yet, despite it’s traditional look, the content of both plays is anything but old-fashioned.
“Gender is a theme throughout both plays,” said Peter Richards, who directs “Elizabeth Rex” and has previously directed “Measure for Measure” and “Brilliant Traces” for OHA. “The two plays are linked, and both speak to the idea that however you define yourself, man or woman, that’s not as important as being true to who you are and what you want to be.”
“Much Ado” is much beloved for its sparkling, witty banter, especially in the case of Beatrice and Benedick, who are engaged in a “merry war” of words. By using the old-fashioned reverse gender casting, it underscores the fact that the motivations of all the characters, male or female, are the heart and soul of the play.
“The concept of the characters doesn’t alter at all,” said Cynthia Croot, who makes her OHA debut in directing “Much Ado.”
“It’s all about finding the humanity that’s at the root of it. Audience members will notice that men are playing those roles, but after a while, it won’t matter. The conceit of this kind of casting isn’t avant-garde at all, but the way we’re doing it is. It will make people think.”
“Elizabeth Rex” features another pairing of two powerful characters: Elizabeth I, played by Kathleen Turco-Lyon, and fictional Shakespearean actor Ned Lowenscroft, played by Craig Baldwin, who also plays Beatrice. The two characters have similar problems. Elizabeth has been forced to live most of her life as, essentially, a man, in order to govern and to not marry. Ned, as a gay man and as an actor who plays female roles, has largely had to adopt a more feminine lifestyle.
“Much Ado” presaged many of the classic battle of the sexes comedies we know and love, from Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn’s many films to “When Harry Met Sally.” The ideas and themes in the play hold up surprisingly well after four centuries, which is why it’s still perhaps Shakespeare’s most beloved comedy, both in its own time and today.
“Elizabeth Rex,” coincidentally, takes place after a performance of “Much Ado,” in a barn at the Queen’s palace, where the troupe of actors in the play are forced to spend the night, after the gates to the city are closed in anticipation of the politically charged execution of the Earl of Essex. In an incredibly apropos turn of events, “Rex” will be performed in a barn — the brand-new post-and-beam barn constructed by the Deer Isle-Stonington Historical Society, which opens to the public later in July. The barn, which will house the society’s permanent collection after “Rex” closes, was built by Brooklin builder John Ellsworth, in the same fashion that it would have been built in the 1830s.
As “Much Ado” and “Rex” are the first two plays to be run in repertory by OHA, it has required double the work of all involved — especially from the cast, many of whom play as many as three roles in both plays combined. Turco-Lyon and Baldwin, in particular, play reverse roles — Turco-Lyon as Elizabeth I and as the comically inept Dogberry, a male role in “Much Ado.” Baldwin is both Beatrice and Ned Lowenscraft, as well as Borachio, one of the men who plots against Hero and Claudio.
“The Queen is fascinated by Beatrice in the play, and her attitude towards men, so she’s particularly drawn to Ned’s character, who is one of those actors who played women’s roles in Shakespeare’s time,” said director Richards. “She’s also fascinated by mortality, and how we approach it, as [the Queen’s] lover is about to be executed. Ned, in the play, is dying of syphilis, so that adds to their connection.”
“One of the many reasons why we wanted to run these two plays in repertory is that we wanted to ask the question, ‘What happened to those men who played the skirt roles?’” said Judith Jerome, artistic director for OHA. “And we’re always interested in gender as a topic in our productions. We always want to provoke discussion and bring up interesting ideas.”
“Much Ado About Nothing” opens with a gala performance at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 30 and runs three weekends through July 16 at the Stonington Opera House. “Elizabeth Rex” opens at 5 p.m. Thursday, July 7, and runs two weekends through July 17, at the Deer Isle-Stonington Historical Society Barn located at 416 Sunset Road in Deer Isle. Regular admission for all shows is $25, fixed-income tickets are $20 and youth under 17 are $15. Tickets for both shows can be purchased at operahousearts.org; a discount applies to those who purchase tickets to both “Much Ado” and “Elizabeth Rex.” In addition, a special “Elizabethan Faire” reception will precede the July 7 opening show of “Elizabeth Rex” at 6 p.m.; tickets for that show are $50, and include mead, wine, refreshments and a special performance from juggler Mike Miclon.