- Shakespeare Re-Dressed: Cross-Gender Casting in Contemporary Performance
Inspired scholarship, the unearthed remains of Elizabethan playhouses, and Gwyneth Paltrow in breeches, have not quenched the desire to recreate the experience of Shakespeare’s theatre. In Shakespeare Re-Dressed, James Bulman offers a collection of essays that take a fresh look at one aspect of the Elizabethan theatre experience: cross-dressing. While the authors discuss early modern conventions, their primary emphasis is on the implications of cross-dressing in contemporary Shakespearean productions. The eleven essays, which explore contemporary cross-gender casting, cover both male and female cross-dressing, US and British productions, unisex and mixed-sex casts, actors’ processes, and audience reception. The greatest strength of Shakespeare Re-Dressed lies in the points of intersection between the pieces that reveal conflicting and complementary perspectives on its subject.
In the volume’s first essay, Jennifer Drouin uses contemporary understandings of cross-dressing to complicate the convention in Shakespeare’s plays. She attempts to distinguish between “cross-dressing, drag, and passing” and the slippages between them, both within the fictive worlds of Shakespeare’s dramas and their reception in production. Although the lines between the three remain blurred despite Drouin’s attempts to clarify them, the discoveries she makes in the process are revelatory and useful. Roberta Barker’s essay “Acting Against the Rules” engages existing scholarship on the eroticism of the “boy actress.” She contends that “only in a situation in which both actors and audiences risk losing detachment by participating in a theatrical cross-dressing that they recognize as an active part of their own world could we truly remember the erotic significance of the Shakespearean boy actress” (70). For Barker, this situation is created not by the reconstructed Globe’s all-male performances or Cheek by Jowl’s As You Like It, but rather by an all-male school production of As You Like It that she attended.
Bulman follows Barker’s essay with the first of two contributions to the volume, this one focusing on Cheek by Jowl’s production in 1991 of As You Like It in which he outs the production’s queer agenda. Bulman’s analysis of the production’s victimization of the flamboyant Jaques reveals that the interpretation was intended as commentary on the violent homophobia prevalent during Thatcherism. Orlando’s simultaneous embrace of his feelings for both Rosalind and Ganymede, coupled with Jaques’s queering, illuminated the production’s queer agenda, which, Bulman argues, led to the “queering of the audience as well” (88). Although audiences were probably unaware of their queering, Bulman’s insightful application of queer theory to contemporary all-male productions is intriguing. In his analysis of the same production of As You Like It, Cary Mazer argues for cross-dressing as a means of inviting audiences into the theatricality of gender. Like Drouin, Mazer distinguishes among types of cross-dressing by putting the camp of Charles Busch’s Psycho Beach Party in conversation with Cheek by Jowl’s cross-dressed performances. Drawing on Rhonda Blair’s work on cross-dressing, Mazer argues that actors who embrace the “not me” and the “not-not-me” of their characters allow audiences a double vision that is not only pleasurable, but also questions gender essentialism. [End Page 139]
P. A. Skantze’s and Andrew James Hartley’s pieces both analyze selectively cross-gendered productions. Skantze examines Mabou Mines’s Lear, which boasted a mixed-gender cast, cross-gender roles—including a female Lear—and cross-dressed characters. Skantze’s project is to tease out the implications of this gender play, its interaction with race, and its impact on the universality of Shakespeare’s plays. Skantze argues that Mabou Mines’s production choices disrupt the supposed universals of Shakespeare’s King Lear by focusing the narrative on a particular woman. Skantze’s response to Mabou Mines’s work reveals the possibilities opened up by subverting the universal Shakespeare. Hartley’s work as dramaturg for the Georgia Shakespeare Festival’s The Tempest informs...