And in the wood, where often you and I
Upon faint primrose-beds were wont to lie,
Emptying our bosoms of their counsel sweet,
There my Lysander and myself shall meet
— Hermia, A Midsummer Night’s Dream 1.1
Walking into the Armory Theatre last night, home of Portland Center Stage, everything except for the play was unknown. I had not yet seen an Anonymous Theatre Company production, which in earlier years was by special invite. A regular fixture in the Portland theatre calendar, their one-night-a-year productions advertise only the director(s) and the play title, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The cast isn’t known to us, or even to one another. Last night, the night of the show, was the first they saw the stage, said these words in public, formed these relationships within the world of the play. The actors were come in amongst us, having taken their seats in the audience to wait out their cue—one even so long as act five. In a play about unexpected transformations, the added level of secrecy and coordinated reveals left me wondering to what extent I rely on the affect of surprise to buoy me through a theatrical experience.
¶ The Original Practice Shakespeare Festival performance of “The Comedie of Errors” was an all-female cast. I wrote a few weeks ago, in response to a Globe and Mail article, about the importance of gender parity in Shakespeare-oriented companies. I have also discussed in two recent WIL Fest posts (here and here) about the ways in which women playing male roles as either male or female characters is in keeping with the spirit of repertory system as well as the gender theory of the period from whence they come. One might say, an all-female cast is as accurate as the all-male casts of the Renaissance.
¶ A benefit of working in repertory is that the plays placed side-by-side can speak to each other. Put in close proximity, they can suggest themes and ideas that might be otherwise subsumed by other aspects of the plays. An all-female “Errors” is a smart move to follow “The Taming of the Shrew”: it gave actual women agency to make performance choices within their peer group immediately after a play nearly impossible to find female empowerment. While actors routinely play against a character’s assigned gender, here nearly half of this cast chose to play their role as men, including Kelsea Ashenbrenner (as the officer), Isabella Buckner, Amy Driesler, Lissie Lewis, Sullivan Mackintosh, and Shandi Muff. What this implies to me is that cross-gender casting and cross-gender performances have become commonplace for the company: it is simply part of the system in which they work. What did it do for William Shakespeare’s shortest play?