In Shakespeare's As You Like It, the heroine, Rosalind, disguises herself as a boy, calling herself Ganymede, who then pretends to be a girl in a courtship game she plays with the boy she loves. That double switcheroo was the inspiration for the name of GAN-e-meed Theatre Project.
As artistic director SerahRose Roth explained it to me after a performance last weekend, her company's mission is to advance the role of women in theater, but not to the exclusion of men. "It's not just about, 'Let's do a bunch of theater for women about women.' It's about what role does gender play in the creation of theater, and let's make sure we have an even playing field, because right now we don't." (While most graduates of theater programs are women, the vast majority of people employed in professional theater are men.) GAN-e-meed is the phonetic spelling of the name, to avoid confusion with the Ganymede of mythology, Zeus' pageboy.
Roth, who founded the troupe two years ago in Boston, moved to Greenfield last year and now splits her time between the Valley and the Hub. She was drawn here partly by the knowledge that even though few of the theater people who live here, off the metropolitan grid, make their living entirely from their art, "they are putting their art into their lives so much that it's okay that they do other things, too. They feel they can still be appreciated as artists."
GAN-e-meed's latest production was "an experiment to find out if we could produce a play that had artists on opposite ends of the state," with rehearsals split between here and Boston. Performances, too. Two-Headed opened last weekend in Brattleboro and plays this Saturday in Greenfield before moving to the Boston Center for the Arts. The cast consists of Roth and Boston-based Kara Manson.
A historical event—the massacre of more than 120 California-bound settlers by a Mormon militia in 1857—provides the starting point and recurring theme for Julie Jensen's play. We meet Lavinia and Hettie when they are 10 years old, and follow them through five decades in the Utah Territory. In the process, we witness not only the arc of a lifelong relationship, but also the workings of early Mormonism seen through these women's very different attitudes toward it.
Lavinia is capricious and irreverent, a rule-breaker who mocks the pious hypocrisies of the church, while Hettie obediently follows the faith and her closed society's expectations. Lavinia's impertinence offends Hettie, and Lavinia calls Hettie "stupid as a stump." They don't approve of each other, but in a life dictated by men and circumscribed by a self-righteous cult in which near-incestuous polygamy is the rule, they're all they've got.
In a post-show talkback last weekend, director Becky Webber explained that the roles were cast against type, which she believes makes for a richer complexity. Roth, who is dark and wiry, plays shy, stolid Hettie, while blonde, soft-featured Manson is Lavinia, mercurial and acid-tongued. Like the Shakespearean switch that gave GAN-e-meed its name, this one pays off, as both women compellingly embody their contrasting roles. And the company's east-west dual personality looks to pay off as well, by adding vivid productions like this one to the Valley's already rich complexity.
Two-Headed: May 5, 7:30 pm, Second Congregational Church, Greenfield, tickets and info at ganemeed.org.
Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.