Quiz and Sympathy

My last year studying dramaturgy, we were all assigned to lead a class during our final seminar, and I attempted to lead a session about casting and dramaturgy. I did a terrible job– I think I’d do better now– but it also seemed to me that most of my classmates didn’t seem to agree with my central premise that casting is a feature of dramaturgy, and that it can and should be part of a dramaturg’s job to concern themselves with casting.

One element of this is more in the news now than it was even then: the possibilities and pitfalls of changing the gender or race or other identifiers of the character or actor playing the character, and whether this change is reflected in the text or is “blind,” and whether good intentions for diversity outweigh the potential for important implications if the casting choices aren’t considered important enough.

But after seeing James Graham’s Quiz on the West End yesterday, I found myself thinking about the more basic type of casting I attempted to lead a discussion about in that class: the simple ways in which the actor you choose to embody a character changes how an audience feels about them. My thesis at Columbia was ultimately about the ways this can change when a character’s gender changes, but this is true even when the basics of the character remain and only the actor changes.

I found Gavin Spokes, who plays Major Charles Ingram in Quiz, to be immensely appealing. I voted him in both the first and second acts, and immediately had to hurry home to Google what had become of him. But then something funny happened: looking at pictures of the actual Ingram, reading some of his quotes, I found I liked him less. I didn’t find the real Ingram as endearing as Spokes’s version at all, and it set me to wondering how I would have voted if someone more like the real Ingram had been cast. My parents and I were shocked by the results of the final audience vote, but they pointed out that people who actually remember the whole scandal were probably more biased against Ingram than we were as totally neutral outsiders, who knew nothing of the story going in. But maybe a more unappealing Ingram– or the memory of the actual one superimposed over Spokes’s sweeter version– would have swayed us another way.

This got me thinking of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, which I first saw during its off-Broadway run at Ars Nova, then again when it was in its midtown Kazino location, and for a final time on Broadway. After seeing it at Kazino, I found myself feeling some sympathy for Anatole, the amoral antagonist who jilts Natasha, the heroine. Maybe he really did love her, I thought, and his crime was not heartlessness, but weakness, an inability to own up to his circumstances and responsibilities. But then, between the Kazino and Broadway runs, I listened to the cast recording a lot. And the more I listened, the more repulsive Anatole seemed. He was a cowardly, heartless, thoughtless creep (and an emblem of the kind of unthinking privilege that makes the show much more relevant to our current moment than I think even the critics who liked it gave it credit for, but nevermind).

It should be noted that Lucas Steele, who played Anatole, is– as the show puts it– hot. Extremely hot. Distractingly hot. Like, sufficiently so to distract you, maybe, from how awful Anatole is because he’s just so freaking attractive. But just hearing his voice on the recording– though he also has an amazing voice– grants enough distance from his physical beauty to focus on the ugliness of his behavior. This is, of course, exactly what happens to Natasha in the show, so maybe it was intentional.

This is all, of course, absurdly subjective. There are actors who will make me hate a character simply because they are the one playing the role, and there’s nothing a director can do about that. But it’s so easy to lose track of the ways in which the simplest of casting choices– not even dramatic ones like race or gender, but straightforward ones like whether it’s White Guy A or White Guy B, can completely change the audience’s experience of the character and story– and thus, actually change the story itself.

The Lady Canon

The anecdotal agreement seems to be that so-called “gender blind” casting is on the rise. Dominic Cavendish got annoyed about it last year. But as long as only select roles within a production are cast against their written gender, it’s all but impossible for the casting to be “blind.” Their conspicuous altered presence, even tokenization, draws attention to the fact of the switch, and raises questions about which roles directors are open to switching and why. This latter question has been particularly interesting to me lately, as I’ve noticed distinct patterns not just in the specific roles that get offered to women, but the things these roles have in common. So I’d like to explore a few of the patterns I’ve been noticing. This is certainly not comprehensive– just some of the most interesting examples.

(A side note: I’ve really been struggling with how to break this conversation out of a gender binary, and haven’t yet found a way to do it. I’m comfortable referring to the roles themselves as male roles, because the characters are indeed written to be cisgender men, but I struggle to find the right language to for the individuals taking these roles (given the theatre industry as it stands now, these are almost exclusively cisgender women, but I’d like to find language that is more open to accommodating the expansion beyond this binary that I hope will someday take place) and for the process that is undertaken when this casting happens. “Switched,” “flipped,” and “swapped” all imply– at least to me– a binary, shifting from one pole to another. What is a verb that can contain the idea that these roles were male, but are being played by non-male individuals who are usually women? I’m still working on it, and for now, I apologize for the fact that this list will break down into a male/female binary, because that reflects the ways these roles have been cast in major productions so far. There is a whole separate conversation to be had about amateur/fringe Shakespeare and how such productions are more expansive in their experimentation with sexuality and gender, but that’s… one for the postdoc, maybe. And this isn’t even getting started on how much I hate using the word “female”…)

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern
I do literally mean Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are very frequently either both women, or a man and woman pair these days, but I also use it to stand in for similar small but speaking roles: Cornelius and/or Voltemand in the same play, the ambassadors in A Winter’s Tale, Henry IV’s other sons, Lady Grey’s older sons in Richard III. These types of roles are both easy and essential. If they are the only male roles being offered to women, then that’s just lazy. But a sufficiently wide spread of gender diversity, including such minor roles as well as major ones, is what helps shift attention from a single, token female lead, instead creating a theatrical world that can allow for actual “blindness” to gender.

Don John
I have seen three female Don Johns in the past two years, two of them within the past six months. Does this count as a trend yet? If so, I’m not sure I like it. I absolutely think that women should get a chance to swagger in black leather (don’t Don Johns always wear black leather?) and be pointlessly and a bit ineffectively evil, but when set against the gender politics of the play as a whole, this choice gets a little more troubling. I’m not sure if directors are making this choice because it will provide “motivation” for Don John’s envy of her brother and Claudio– of course she’s jealous! Women, amirite?– or because they think it will somehow soften the play’s incredibly troubling gender politics to have a women spearhead the aggressive (fake) slut-shaming of another woman. Neither of these sits right with me, the former for obvious reasons, the latter because it seems absurd and unfair to defang the play’s critique of chastity-obsessed patriarchy by turning its most active proponent into a woman. There are sexist women who hate women, of course, but Don John is not a role with sufficient complexity to responsibly explore that issue. Or they’re just not thinking about it at all, and think it would be fun to have a woman strutting evilly in black leather, which I empathize with. But my point is that we must think about these things beyond just the blanket assumption that any opportunity for women is narratively good– especially in a play whose embedded gender politics make “gender blindness” more or less impossible.

Kent, Benvolio, Horatio
The Globe’s King Lear this summer featured Saskia Reeves as Kent, and the Ian McKellan Chichester production soon to transfer to the West End had Sinéad Cusack, who I assume will also be in the West End version, but it hasn’t been announced.

Last year, I was at a conference about gender equity in the arts, and was attending a panel about the topic this post is exploring: making more space for women in the classics. I asked a version of the question I’m exploring here– what do you think of the fact that women are generally cast in the same types of male roles over and over?– and offered Benvolio as an example. One of the directors on the panel replied, “Well, I do think Benvolio should always be a woman!” Which both did and didn’t answer the question.

Finally, few recent major Hamlets have had women as Horatio, but it pops up quite a lot in regional production– my most recent was at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2016.

I lump all of these roles together because I think they are very similar tonally and in their relationship to the main character of their respective plays. They are all solid, prominent roles– Kent perhaps moreso than the other two, Benvolio perhaps less– but they make the top half of the cast list for sure. Their major function is to act as helpmeets and voices of reason in support of a male main character. Benvolio and Horatio are both pointedly non-violent in very violent plays. They are tirelessly devoted, even though they don’t always get the credit or respect they deserve for their efforts.

To say that a character like Benvolio should always be a women offers a slightly troubling implication about the types of roles we feel women “should” play. The thinking behind this assumption is obvious: he’s the pacifist of the group, he’s a voice of reason, he doesn’t really engage in the bawdy punning of the other boys. The same can be said, more or less, of Horatio and Kent. Only casting women in roles that reinforce stereotypes about femininity is contrary to the spirit of these casting experiments, in my opinion, and is not particularly creative at this point.

The Clowns: Feste, Touchstone, Jaques, Lear’s Fool, etc.
I think a major element of these is that most of the clowns are wholly sexless: there’s no risk of accidentally creating a queer relationship (the horror!!!)– except with Touchstone, but he’s also the one I’ve seen least. Their narrative isolation makes them easier to transform without much of a ripple effect. Even in a production that’s adhering to a historical setting that supposedly makes the introduction of women into more active roles complicated, the clowns and fools already exist in a set-apart place, literally granted license to live outside the ordinary social order.

To my mind, there is something a bit problematic about constraining women– especially under the excuse of “historical accuracy”– to these exceptional positions. There shouldn’t need to be a reason or an excuse for women to exist in your theatrical world– they’re already speaking in verse, for goodness’ sake. None of this is real. (And that’s not even getting into the fact that our popular ideas of “historical accuracy” as relate to the positions of marginalized groups tend to be wildly inaccurate anyway.)

It’s also sometimes difficult to know what the heck to do with the clowns, written as they usually were for specific performers, capitalizing on set bits and audience expectations that are now mostly lost. So I’m often readier to believe with the clowns and fools that they genuinely are a type of “gender blindness”– that the directors really have chosen the person who they feel will find something to bring to the role, some way to fill out and contextualize them, and the gender of the performer is sort of beside the point.

Cassius
Julius Caesar seems to be a show that is particularly likely to be cast wholly with women, or to feature “gender-blind” casting in various combinations– possibly because it is so often re-set into a contemporary context, and the relative lack of romance (you don’t tend to see female Brutuses in mixed-gender casts) makes it easy to avoid queering existing romantic relationships. I realize I keep alluding to this, and it’s because I can only assume this is a major concern for directors, because they so aggressively avoid it. The one time I’ve seen a female Julius Caesar (a choice I generally quite liked), Calphurnia was cut and her lines of warning reassigned to Mark Antony. 

In a mixed-gender cast (including right now in London), the lead most likely to be swapped seems to be Cassius. Though certainly one of the main roles, it is certainly the least impressive and least famous of the leading trio of Brutus, Antony, and Cassius. It is also the role explicitly identified as likely acting out of envy and insecurity. Unlike Brutus, he’s not particularly principled, is accused of accepting bribes, and even his death is actually just an accident resulting from a ridiculous miscommunication.

Is Cassius a great role? Absolutely. Am I arguing that it’s problematic to cast women as flawed characters? Absolutely not. But the nature of Cassius’s flaws– envy of powerful men, a hot temper and uncontrolled emotions, a death that results from a misreading of battlefield tactics– do evoke sexist stereotypes. I’m not necessarily saying women shouldn’t play Cassius, or directors can’t make something interesting out of these uncomfortable associations– but one does wonder why it’s Cassius they default to, and not the honorable Brutus, or the ultimately triumphant and scene-stealing Mark Antony.

Malvolio
Speaking of queering romantic relationships… I haven’t seen this that often, but it did happen twice in London recently. Turning the priggish, universally disliked (by the others onstage) character who is shamed and mocked for his inappropriate love interest into a lesbian? Yeah, cool.

Prospero
This one’s great because there’s a film! It’s not particularly easy to access, in my experience, but at least one instance of gender-swapped Shakespeare is permanently recorded as the Official Film Version. So that’s nice.

Despite their obvious differences in role size, power, and, uh, competence, I can’t help but think of Don John again, and the effect this casting has on the play’s themes I always slightly feel like a female Prospero disrupts or defangs the play’s patriarchal commentary. On the other hand, if you’re taking a post-colonial angle, white women are certainly as complicit in the violence of colonialism as white men.

But there’s also the more positive take on Prospero– one that I’m always slightly surprised to see because of the strong critical strain relating to Prospero’s patriarchal abuses, but which really is the more common theatrical version, in my experience. This taps into the cultural associations of Prospero with Shakespeare himself, and often comes in productions that bill the play as Shakespeare’s last, the epilogue serving as both the magician and the playwright’s farewells to their crafts. There is something compellingly subversive in having a woman inhabit this association (they do tend to be white women, though, so it’s not quite the height of radicalism just yet).

*

The title of this post is a reference to Dr. Jami Rogers’ concept of the “black canon,” a remarkably consistent set of roles in which black actors tend to be cast at the exclusion of other, usually better, parts. I believe we can see the same patterns in the roles generally offered to women, with related (probably subconscious) generalizations underpinning the choice of roles. Rather than blindly applauding casting choices on the basis that they provide opportunities for women, I’d like to see more rigorous interrogation of the types of opportunities that are consistently being offered, and more attention paid to these patterns, rather than approaching each instance as an isolated choice without broader resonance.

 

Starring Hamilton

When Lin-Manuel Miranda enters as Alexander Hamilton, introducing himself as such in song, he is greeted with rapturous applause. This moment seems written into the music itself– that space to pause between “Alexander Hamilton… my name is Alexander Hamilton,” and to wait for a moment or two (or several more) after.

When Jamael Westman enters as Alexander Hamilton, introduces himself as such, he’s greeted with dead silence. The name hangs in the air, and into that silence he speaks the assurance that suddenly feels electrically charged: “Just you wait.”

Westman is tall and slim as a knife blade, and he always but always stands perfectly erect. With his long, long frame, his hands folded behind his back, even as he towers over absolutely everyone he meets, there is no one who will make him stoop. He is still and controlled. He is going to take up all the damn space he needs. When he smiles (not often– smile more), it’s sharp and often smug.

Whether the London cast of Hamilton should be seen as a kind of replacement or tour cast, or a whole new original, is a vexed question. The glossy souvenir brochures in the lobby feature pictures of the Broadway cast, and everyone here has been mainlining the original soundtrack. In either case, it’s rare– at least in my experience– to see a leading actor transform a role. Javier Muñoz, who I didn’t see, apparently uncovered many of Hamilton’s spikier edges. But Muñoz is a known quantity with Broadway experience and a long association with Miranda. This is Westman’s first musical.

I expected him to be cheered when he announced himself as “Alexander Hamilton” anyway– I assume the touring Hamiltons are, an expression of delight to be meeting the title character, no matter who he’s played by. Like I said, the music itself practically invites it. But that silence was immensely moving– that reminder that this young actor, stepping into the shadow of the beloved Lin-Manuel, would had to prove himself to an expectant audience just as his character is proving himself to a skeptical onstage world.

And it is, as it turns out, a slow unfolding. This makes sense in a role written for the show’s creator and a well-established star, who has no need to win the audience’s loyalty, but it takes a while before Hamilton is really asked to display the full range of his abilities. Like the characters, we have to wait for his talents to unfold: gosh, he’s good with that high-speed rap– oh, he can sing, too– oh, he can act. He has arrogance and menace and charm and relentless drive. It’s so obvious why everyone hates him, but we love him anyway. He and Jefferson, a pair of gaudily-dressed egomaniacs, seem like a newly equal match. Burr (played, fittingly, by the established West End star Giles Terera, who did get entrance applause) and his envy and irritation with Hamilton’s striving makes a whole new kind of sense. It strengthens his opponents as characters when their disdain for Hamilton doesn’t seem to be based only in envy and class prejudice (and possibly weakens Eliza a little bit, but that’s a separate essay). A more flawed Hamilton makes for a stronger overall show.

Most of all, though– in the early scenes especially– the double layers of a relatively untried newcomer, both Hamilton and Westman himself, forcing his way with confidence onto the stage he knows he deserves is captivating and touching and beautiful. Before long, I suspect he’ll be a star, too, greeted with the same rapturous applause as the American Hamiltons. But for now, there’s that silence, that breath of uncertainty: just you wait. 

Best OSF Doubles 2017

One of the greatest delights of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is the repertory company, wherein actors play multiple roles in multiple plays across the season. As far as I know, dramaturgically engineering these roles for cross-show resonance is not really a priority. But sometimes it happens anyway. Here are some of my favorite pairs from the 2017 season:

Ned Alleyn (Shakespeare in Love)/Gaston (Beauty and the Beast) – James Ryen
James Ryen made his festival debut last year as Quang in Vietgone and Polixenes in A Winter’s Tale. His roles this year are more similar, but also amazing: the scenery-chomping Ned Alleyn (played in the film version by Ben Affleck and a valiant attempt at an English accent) and the scenery-scaling GastonThere would not be a single line out of place if Ned Alleyn sang “Gaston” about himself (swapping out the names, of course) and that makes this the perfect double.

Mark Antony (Julius Caesar)/The Beast (Beauty and the Beast) – Jordan Barbour
As I said to my viewing companion at intermission of Beauty in the Beast, there’s just a slight, subtle difference between the temperamental Beast and Shakespeare’s scheming orator. It’s always exciting to see an actor traverse such a wide section of their range in a single season, something that doesn’t often happen quite so dramatically even at OSF. In this case, the contrast between Mark Antony’s consummate emotional control and the Beast’s inability to manage his temper (or any other feelings) is fantastic, and Barbour’s ability to shift from such opacity to such vulnerability (while wearing Beast prosthetics, no less) is really impressive.

I also got to see Barbour go on as an understudy for the preening Richard Burbage in Shakespeare in Love, which added another fun layer of rivalry with James Ryen/Alleyn/the Beast.

Will and Viola (Shakespeare in Love)/Fenton and Anne Page (The Merry Wives of Windsor)- William DeMeritt and Jamie Ann Romano
I didn’t realize this neat echoing of lovers until near the very end of The Merry Wives of Windsor. If you don’t like how Shakespeare in Love ends, you can just pop across the courtyard to see these two get together after all. Their situations are reversed in the two plays, to a certain extent: one of the Pages’ concerns about Fenton is that he’s too high-status to actually be interested in their daughter, in contrast to the wealthy Viola’s inability to match beneath her station.

Portia (Julius Caesar)/Penelope (The Odyssey) – Kate Hurster
There were quite a few actors who appeared in both of these shows, but these were the most resonant examples. Kate Hurster’s two waiting wives– the patient Penelope and the ultimately despairing Portia– paint contrasting images of idealized femininity, both in the eras of their source material and, perhaps, our own: a core of strength that is still defined by and ultimately subject to her relationship with her husband.

Octavius (Julius Caesar)/Telemachus (The Odyssey)- Benjamin Bonenfant
Benjamin Bonenfant’s two heirs likewise feel like echoes, two young men grappling with their father’s (or uncle’s) legacies, with the choices that will bring them from boy to man. Telemachus is sweet and loyal, Octavius bubbling with latent danger; both the emblem of an uncertain future.

 

Casting Isn’t Blind

Carousel is coming back to Broadway! There are plenty of reasons to be troubled by this– its blithe defense of main character Billy Bigelow’s physical abuse of his wife being the glaring one– but this production has managed to add another. Billy– a wife-slapping petty criminal with a heart of gold who dies in an impulsive, horribly-planned robbery that he undertakes so that his future child “won’t be brought up in slums/with a lotta bums/like me”– is to be played by African American actor Joshua Henry, while his wife Julie will be played by Jessie Mueller, who is white.

Let’s make it clear right off the bat that Joshua Henry is exceedingly talented, and speaking purely in terms of musical and acting skill, I would love to see him play Billy. But can casting ever really be taken purely in those terms? Can we ever actually be blind to the physical bodies being used onstage the way the terms “colorblind” and “genderblnd” casting suggest?

As the title of this post makes pretty obvious, I think the answer is no.

One of Carousel’s textual cruxes of conflict is class. Julie and her friend Carrie both find beaux who are out of place in their working class community: Carrie’s wealthy fisherman husband is an ambitious prig, and Billy is seen as a shiftless criminal. While making him black in the bargain adds another layer to the New Englanders’ suspicion– is it racism as well as classism?– that additional complexity is one the show doesn’t actually have the text to explicitly deal with. And even if letting the play’s discussions of class become oblique references to race is effective, it comes at the price of forcing a black actor to play out a set of persistent negative stereotypes about black men: that they’re violent (especially towards white women), that they’re impulsive, that they can’t hold down a real job, that they are prone– through prison or death or disinterest– to abandoning their families. Billy is ultimately redeemed, sort of… but first he does a lot of things that require redemption. And it still only comes after he’s dead.

Even if director Jack O’Brien decides to create a theatrical world wherein the characters are “blind” to race– where it is not highlighted at all in production and is treated as irrelevant, the audience will still see it. A director can decide that race doesn’t matter, but they’re naive if they think the bodies of the actors onstage won’t still carry meaning for the viewer. The actors can ignore Billy’s race, but the audience will still see a black man slap his white wife.

I’m always interested in revivals that want to complicate the racial or gender dynamics of the original. But so often, it’s a case of introducing an idea that the text simply doesn’t leave room to fully explore.

On the other hand: Joshua Henry is really talented, and will probably be a great Billy. Doesn’t he have the right to play the role if he wants to? Isn’t there power in having a black man stand alone on a Broadway stage and sing one of the most famous solos in musical theatre history? Yes, definitely. But I think this case is more clear-cut than many (ask me about my conflicted feelings about a woman playing Aaron Burr) in that the things Billy has to do are already so troubling, and have such strong resonance with powerful negative stereotypes, that it’s hard to feel like the chance to hear Joshua Henry sing “Soliloquy” is worth it.