Lisa Wolpe is known for bottling magic at the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company as its founder and artistic director for the last seventeen seasons. The Wicked Wilde Shakespeare Festival is a five-week summer block party of classic plays reworked in hyper-speed at Santa Monica’s Miles Memorial Playhouse. Wolpe, with over 30 years of acting, directing and playwriting experience tucked under belt, concocts her latest gender-bending Bard-brew, as well as Oscar Wilde’s lauded favorite, The Importance of Being Earnest.
Straying from the customary all-female cast, LAWSC finally lets the boys have a turn in The Tyrant’s Tale and Macbeth3, re-mastered one-hour versions of A Winter’s Tale and Macbeth. The plays are performed back to back with a looping of actors in multiple roles. There’s no intermission, but rather a thirty-minute pause between productions during which the actors disrobe the characters they wear in the first hour and literally step into the shoes of the next.
The Tyrant’s Tale begins in what looks like a Wendy Darling nursery, with a bedridden Prince Mamillius (David Glasser), and a pregnant Queen Hermione (Heidi Rose Robbins) in a contemplative mood, dimly lit in the foreground. Nurses tend to the ailing young Prince, who is eager to hear heroic stories to assuage his sickly state. And much like a fairy story, this version of A Winter’s Tale unfolds as Leontes, King of Sicilia (Scott McRae) and Polixenes, King of Bohemia (Andrew Heffernan) burst through the door-windows center stage in a buoyant sword fight (choreographed by fight director Edgar Landa). It’s as if they jumped straight out of a storybook.
There’s fast-forwarding in the plot and the character-actor shifts take a bit of accommodation. Polixenes’ Bohemian accent sounds Italian, but then again, what does a Bohemian accent really sound like? And when Heffernan returns as a different character without it, you’re left disoriented before catching the drift of transformation.
The focus is on Leontes in this one. McRae plays a pompous and paranoid monarch. You can see the inner workings of his jealous mind as his nostrils flare and his eyes rapidly dart about the room. Like a raging bull, he leaves a path of destruction behind him as he accuses his wife of adultery and sends her to prison to rot in her “condition.” McRae shows us a king who is maniacal and fearful: a king once respected by his subjects, now secretly cursed for his blind rage.
As an imprisoned Queen, Robbins appears in a bloodied nightdress and with soiled hair. Her plea during trial is calm and true: resigned, and yet unwavering in her innocence. The Queen’s attendant, Paulina (Lisa Wolpe), offers a sound tongue lashing to king Leontes, “What studied torments, tyrant, hast for me?” and in this moment, Wolpe outshines the rest of the cast. Her voice shakes and tears run down her face as she stands up to a King, a tyrant…a man.
Scenes in Bohemia are heavily edited in order to make a hasty return to Sicilia where the formerly banished Antigonus (Kevin Vavasseur), the newly restored Princess of Sicily, Perdita (Laura Covelli), and the now repenting Leontes may honor the statue-come-to-life of the wronged Hermione. You come away with an understanding that the women in this play somehow always obtain the upper hand—a fair ode to the customary all-female company cast.
Macbeth3, however, is no fairytale. Fresh from the Sicilia in Tyrant’s Tale return the three main actors of the night: Kevin Vavasseur, Scott McRae, and Andrew Heffernan. They are on their own and you can’t help but be a little afraid for them. This is Macbeth after all, director’s cut or not.
Set in a post-apocalyptic warzone among stone ruins, oil cans and smoke, possessed soldiers play the incantation of the witches, circling center stage in a diabolical ring-around-the-rosy. A satanic Vavasseur rises out of the depths of hell—appropriately an oil barrel—to reveal to Macbeth (Heffernan) his destiny to be King. Vavasseur slinks below and returns as Lady Macbeth, and it is a sight to see.
Costume designer Allison Leach, who has also loaned her threading talents to the cast of AMC’s Mad Men, dresses Vavasseur in a blond-gray wig reminiscent of a wild Medusa’s mane. Her black corset and grotesque green gown look as if this Lady trudges through swamps all day. It is hell on earth, and the color theme matches with the men’s charcoal army fatigues. Macbeth, in particular, looks like a jaded soldier, but at times reminds of a Scottish Blade.
McRae triples as Banquo, Duncan and Macduff. He haunts Macbeth after the nighttime murders with a bloodied throat and ghoul-like voice, which is made even more ghoulish with a delayed audio track of the same lines overlapping his own. Murder and masculinity are the two-faced coin here: murder makes the man feel like a man, versus Macduff’s need to “feel it as a man” upon hearing of his wife’s murder. And on this post-apocalyptic stage, where only three “men” are left behind to destroy each other yet again in a new world, the inference of man and his power and woman without man’s power is made null. In the end, one man is left standing with no woman at his side.
The chemistry between Heffernan and Vavasseur is peculiar. Granted, there is a woman in the room being played by a man, but there is a relationship here somewhere. Vavasseur is not unbelievable as a woman. He crouches down in order to not appear taller than Heffernan, and he swoons and retreats—dare I say—like a woman. Gestures are exaggerated; slaps are real, and the powerlessness this Lady feels at the end is a sad truth for characters of the fairer sex, per the Bard. So why not give the man a Lady’s role? Let him know how it feels.
I wonder how much of this is director Lisa Wolpe’s master plan?
When going to the theater, especially for Shakespeare, the audience adopts a preset belief in magic. We must believe it or else everything is lost in translation. We are here to see a man become a woman, a tyrant regain his innocence, and a woman stand tall as any and every character she chooses to be. Is it possible for three men to run circles around Macbeth? To exile the natives of Bohemia from the Bard’s text? It’s possible, but is it right? Trick question. This is Lisa Wolpe’s theater, and anything goes.
Macbeth runs May 29 - June 27, 2010 at The Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90403. Free parking is located at 808 Wilshire Blvd. Information can be found at http://www.milesplayhouse.org/.