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Stagestruck: Guys in Tights

Campuses stage male-centered classics, with a difference.

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Tuesday, April 16, 2013
Jessica Hodder as Truffaldino in The Servant of Two Masters

Four male characters dominate this week’s Valley theater. Not too surprising, considering women’s chronic underrepresentation in dramatis personae from the Greeks to the present, but a bit so, since two of the productions are at all-women’s colleges. Three of the plays are time-tested classics and the fourth focuses on a classic male archetype.

The most unexpected male presence is at Mount Holyoke College, whose theater department generally hews to a policy of casting all women, no matter what the script. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (April 18-21, 413-538-2406, mtholyoke.edu/acad/theatre/season), English Department chair John Lemly plays the arrogant steward Malvolio. This casting looks to shift the play’s balance from the tortuous unrequited-love triangle of the main plot, to the comical backstairs subplot involving equally unsuitable crushes. Director Roger Babb also reports that he’s shifted the setting from Shakespeare’s fanciful Illyria to “a contemporary beach community—think Havana, Miami, Dubrovnik—the border between land and water and a site for excessive passions, [where] there is a lot of laughter and desire and self-delusion.”

The man at the center of The Merchant of Venice isn’t the title character, Antonio, but Shylock, perhaps Shakespeare’s most complex and controversial figure—the Jewish moneylender who demands a pound of flesh in principal-plus-interest when the unlucky merchant defaults on a loan. Although he appears in only five scenes, Shylock’s grisly bargain drives the plot, and the anti-Semitism expressed in it still dominates discussion of the play. It’s presented here by the Renaissance Theatre Company at the UMass-based Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies, in collaboration with UMass Hillel (April 18-27, 577-3600). Joshua Platt, who is playing Shylock, finds him “one of Shakespeare’s most mercurial characters”—crafty businessman, aggrieved victim, vigilant father, knife-wielding monster. Despite its tortured theme, Platt points out that the play is generally listed as a comedy, and with that in mind, “we have embraced a playful attitude.”

Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters is considered both the apex and the finale of Commedia dell’Arte—a fully scripted version of the improv-based form’s stock characters, farcical situations and knockabout stagecraft. Smith College’s production (April 19-20, 25-27, 413-585-2787, smith.edu/smitharts) has a female student, Jessica Hodder, in the traditionally male title role, the chronically hungry Truffaldino who, like many a minimum-wage worker today, takes a second job to pay the grocery bills. The cross-gender casting may be the only departure from tradition, though, as guest director Vernon Hartman’s original translation is reportedly quite faithful to Goldoni’s text and his staging employs masks and other classic conventions.

And then there’s Goldoni’s contemporary, Giacomo Casanova, a name synonymous with sly seduction and sexual prowess. Casanova, by Amherst-based playwright Constance Congdon, is being staged at UMass as the culmination of the theater department’s season of plays by women (April 18-27, 413-545-2511, umass.edu/fac). Congdon began the script in the early ’80s because, she says, “I wanted to write a big, picaresque story [and was] interested in how women were complicitous in their own oppression” but abandoned it for a time because after reading her subject’s memoirs, “I was so pissed off I had to stop writing.” The play was produced at New York’s Public Theater in 1991, funded by a liberal private foundation because, Congdon says, “Joe Papp told them my play contained everything [conservative Senator] Jesse Helms decreed could Not Be In A Play.”

Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.

 

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