In a black box theater, with cubes scattered and splattered with colorful paint, a woman comes out to put her costume skirt on, but then decides to put on pants and a tie. Little by little the whole cast comes on stage, and the men put on skirts and corsets, and the women dress in male attire.
The Judith Shakespeare Company’s Two Gentlemen of Verona at the The Barrow Group Theatre had all the male roles played by women, and vice versa. The story revolves around two young men who are best friends, and how they get mixed up falling in love with the wrong person etc., in a Midsummer Night’s Dream-esque way. Since the characters are stereotypical to their gender, the switch added an edge to this mellow play.
At some times, the gender-reverse casting made the whole show a parody of itself. It was as if it wasn’t taking itself too seriously, which is ultimately a good thing in a comedy. It also made aspects of the story funnier than if it had been done as usual. For example, there is one point when a female character (played by a guy) needs to dress as a man, so there is a guy pretending to be a girl dressing up as a guy, which is how it would have been in the old days of theater, when men had to play all roles, including the female ones.
To my surprise, the cast included a real dog and a live guitar player accompanying the action and clowning. The performances of the entire cast were excellent, and the main two girls (playing guys) displayed their masculinity very well.
When actors were part of the scenery, such as holding a glittery sun or moon with a fishing pole, or an unimportant role, such as delivering a letter, they wore plain black masks, which gender-neutralized them. This was necessary because since so much of the play involves messing with masculine and feminine roles, the audience needs something to draw a curtain on this and lessen our constant awareness of their own gender as well as the gender of their character.
Two Gentlemen of Verona has, as Wikipedia says, “traditionally been seen as one of [Shakespeare’s] weakest plays.” So why would the Judith Shakespeare Company perform this one? Perhaps for a play to be done in gender reversal, it needs some specific elements, such as a comedic tone, and the amusement of a girl dressing up as a guy. Also, it’s helpful for the story not to be too deep or complicated, so the switch can just be for laughs and not be too confusing. Overall, the production outshines the play itself, but maybe that is exactly the point.
Check out footage from the TRaC roundtable discussion with guest speaker Alvin Chan, who plays Julia in Judith Shakespeare Company’s “The Two Gentlemen of Verona”: