Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Daylight and Champagne

Virginia is no longer just for straight lovers, but for all lovers. And about damn time.

With gender issues blaring from the headlines this week as same sex marriage became legal here, it's kind of thrilling to step out of the shadow of so many embarrassing stories about Virginia and feel proud we are, if not ahead of the curve, at last riding the wave of progressive thought for a change.

What better reason to spend an evening further blurring gender lines using magnificent language and a ratio of 13 women to 4 men to tell a tale of cross-dressing, passionate love and drunkenness? What I mean is, I may not want to be a man, but I can dig watching women play men all night long.

That's just what I was going for when Pru and I made our way to the Speakeasy, right here in lovely downtown Jackson Ward, for a gender-reversed exploration of "Twelfth Night."

The latest in director BC Maupin's mission to produce Shakespeare's entire canon using women in men's roles, I've yet to miss a reading and, frankly, it's because of girl parts.

I love seeing that many women on stage. It doesn't matter what the play is - goodness knows I've seen "Twelfth Night" produced a lot - because even a familiar play takes on a different shape and feel when women are playing the male roles.

We arrived in time to grab a good table and eat bowls of gumbo full of shrimp, chicken and sausage topped with a perfect ball of rice and cornbread buttons before the play began. I was asked to move my chair around a bit as I was apparently right in one of the paths the actors would be using to come and go.

The action began with several locations - on top of the upright piano, from upstairs in the balcony where part of the audience sat and from either side of the bar behind us.

It was clear we were in for a treat when Molly Hood and Melissa Johnston Price stumbled out from between the tables playing drunken cohorts Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Sir Toby Belch.

A plague o' these pickle herring!

While technically, these gender-reversed plays are readings because the cast is still holding their scripts, it's not the kind of reading where actors sit in chairs and just read. Instead, they're out there cutting a caper, one might say, especially these two drunken masters.

Come, come, I'll go burn some sack. 'Tis too late to go to bed now.

Ditto Robert Throckmorton who was playing the fair Olivia, the object of the Duke of Orsino's affection, who after saying the line, "Give me my veil. Come, throw it over my face," proceeded to clip sunglasses shades over his regular glasses.

Our cross-dressing heroine Viola was played by Alexander Sapp with a scarf on his head and adoration in his eyes.

During the scene where the fake letter is left out for Malvolio to "accidentally" discover," the drunken trio of Toby, Andrew and Fabian (the always funny Jacqueline O'Connor) crouched behind a nearby bar table subbing for a hedge of bushes. Moving from there to beside our table, Toby and Fabian pulled out straws to mooch sips of people's drinks from them, including Toby taking a long pull on Pru's Pinot Noir.

The versatility award went to the energetic Rebecca Anne Muhleman playing Feste, the fool, singing like an angel and even playing piano when necessary.

I am indeed not her fool but her corrupter of words.

The Speakeasy space was put to excellent use, given that it was crowded with tables full of Shakespeare fans, like when the excellent Becki Jones as the beleaguered Malvolio is in jail, with the railing of the balcony suggesting the bars on his cell.

Watching the tall Jay Millman play the servant wench and instigator Maria, a character I think of as short and curvy (busty even), I had to keep reminding myself he was a she.

No matter how well you know the play, it was inevitable that there'd be times when you were looking at the actors trying to remember who was who. As a guy at the next table asked, "So, that's a guy playing a girl who's a boy?" His date nailed the answer. "Okay."

To put fire in your heart and brimstone in your liver.

It was easier just to go with the flow and enjoy watching the sexes play each other. One thing I did notice was how much more believable women are at playing men than men playing women. Maybe it's just me, but it rings truer to see women showing strength than seeing men showing adoration and fawning.

Of course, an added bonus of "Twelfth Night" is that in addition to all that great comedy plus love stories, you get the touching scene at the end where siblings Viola and Sebastian realize the other isn't dead, a truly moving moment even after so many times.

Love sought is good but given unsought, better.

During the talkback with the actors afterwards, there was much discussion of whether it's harder playing the opposite sex in a comedy or drama.

Price/Sir Toby was adamant that doing comedy as a man was much more difficult and that she only relaxed after she'd gotten her first few big laughs from the crowd. "We knew you had a drunk man inside you," quipped Sapp.

Even if we didn't, it was a distinct pleasure to watch the actors relax into their roles, begging the question of what a full production with plenty of rehearsal time to work out playing against your sex might be like.

Good question. I'm still working out getting good at the one I was born with and it's taking a lot longer than I expected.

One thing I do know is Sir Toby, you're wrong. 'Tis never too late to go to bed. 'Tis only too early to get up.

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