Review: Miss Shakespeare and J. Caesar, two plays in repertory by The Escape Artists

Until May 17 at Performance Works and May 21-29 at Kay Meek Centre

Tickets: http://www.escapeartists.ca/

In general, women (and men) are looking at theatre and noticing two problems: plays are typically written so that the characters with the largest roles are male. Yes, there are exceptions, but there’s no disputing statistical prevalence. Women actors are not going to be pleased with playing a supporting role (literally) forever. So that leaves two complementary solutions: 1) Write and perform plays with lead female characters, and 2) Fill traditionally male roles with women. You may have noticed in the last few James Bond films, that the role of “M” is played by a woman, Judi Dench. Clearly, Ian Fleming did not write the Bond books that way. But this change in no way harms the story–few James Bond fans will care that “M” is now a woman.

“Miss Shakespeare” is a new Canadian musical, by Tracey Powers, which takes the first approach. All of the characters are female (although the ghost of William Shakespeare makes an appearance and is played by a woman), and to add some “meta-ness” to the play, the lead character is Judyth Shakespare, a daughter of William. Women’s early theatrical history is hidden, because after all they were not allowed to perform publicly (although the exact legal status of this act is controversial). But we do have some evidence that women performed theatre in private settings. “Miss Shakespeare” is about a group of women who get together to form a troupe, to perform a play that Judyth Shakespeare has written. I loved the music, and I loved the ideas. My literal mind bristled a bit at some possible improbabilities in women’s conduct during that period, but I was not there after all. Lingering in the back of my mind always is Virginia Woolf’s famous essay “A Room of One’s Own”. Woolf famously imagines the difficulties that a hypothetical sister of Shakespeare (and wouldn’t you know it, this hypothetical woman is named Judith!) would have had should she have sought to become a theatrical and literary genius like her brother. Everything from the lack of education that her brother had, to the impossibility of women performing in public theatre, to unwed pregnancy, would have kept Judith from achieving her goals. What “Miss Shakespeare” conveys, beyond the historical interest, is how creating a work of theatrical art is liberating and thrilling for the performers. It’s clear Powers loves the process of creating theatre, and that comes through very clearly in “Miss Shakespeare”.

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(Miss Shakespeare, credit Bold Rezolution Studio)

J. Caesar, in contrast, takes the second approach. We are accustomed to Shakespeare plays being re-imagined. Romeo and Juliet appear as gang-identified New Yorkers, to name one famous case. With J.Caesar, in another fantasy world, there are only women. Some notes I read suggest that a plague has wiped out the men. If so, I missed that. I just saw another world, with no clear time or place, where women were jockeying for power. Antony becomes Antonia, Julius Caesar becomes Julia Caesar, and so on. I found it interesting to note my discomfort when some famous Shakespearean lines came up and were adapted to the characters, “There is a tide in the affairs of women, which taken at the flood …”. Wait, why does that involuntarily distress me? We are so accustomed to the male being universal, and the female being somewhat of the exception. (As a side note, I think that some French- and Spanish-speaking feminists are bending the traditional rules we always learned, where this phenomenon is even more obvious than it is in English.)

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(Note the timeless, plain costumes of the actors in J. Caesar. Credit Emily Cooper.)

I did find the complete lack of time or place in this re-envisioned J. Caesar to be a bit of a distraction. Although I know Shakespeare does not aim for historical accuracy, ever, I still can easily picture Julius Caesar, Brutus, and Cassius walking around Rome. With these characters, I could not. But the actors gave excellent performances, and it is enlightening to see women vying for political power and committing political intrigues of huge significance. There’s no question of passing the Bechdel test in this work!

It was fun to see these plays on consecutive nights, and see both approaches to creating theatre that brings women front and center.

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