Footsteps Theatre Company

Sometimes it takes centuries to turn the tables. The Two Gentlemen of Verona was first performed 400 years ago by Lord Strange’s Men–and indeed the cast was made up entirely of men. Of course at that time actresses were forbidden from the boards; boys played women’s parts.

Now the Footsteps Theatre Company has produced an all-female Two Gentlemen, and as they see it, their version offers more than nontraditional casting. Press materials argue that “men of Shakespeare’s time enjoyed richer emotional lives than their 20th century counterparts. . . . Back then men who did not express their emotions openly were considered not to be trusted.” But today, Footsteps argues, women are “viewed as the more emotional of the sexes.” So this company believes that casting women in male roles “will bring an emotional context to these characters that may in fact be closer to the way they were originally portrayed.”

It’s intriguing but debatable, this speculation that the lives of 20th-century men are, compared to those of Elizabethan males, emotionally deprived. How do you measure feelings, much less measure them across the centuries? Then there’s the assumption that 20th-century actresses can evoke more emotion from roles than their psychologically stunted male colleagues can. That’s not just unprovable, it sounds like a dare, not unlike that stupid tennis championship match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.

Of course the proof is in the playing. That’s why it’s curious that Footsteps should choose for their emotional experiment The Two Gentlemen of Verona, a perfunctory courtly comedy. It’s hard to imagine that even those emotionally unfettered, impassioned and empowered Elizabethan males took this stuff over the top.

The main event is Proteus’s sudden unbridled passion for his best friend Valentine’s beloved Silvia, an infatuation no more astonishing than the fact that Valentine forgives the disloyalty. The changeable Proteus is the sole character who doesn’t know his heart. The play’s purpose is to set him back on the path of true love for the all-suffering Julia, who at one point is reduced to Proteus’s reluctant go-between. Happily, Silvia will have none of him.

Despite the emotional handicap of having a male–Bob Scogin–as a director, Footsteps’ fresh-faced, high-energy staging is playful, unpretentious, fast-moving, and consistently likable (a welcome alternative to the stylistic mishmash of Center Theater’s recent Two Gentlemen of Verona). It may not be polished, but at least it’s dust-free. Becky Flory’s gaily painted backdrop and the effervescent Rossini score set a tone that’s maintained throughout.

Happily, the male impersonators never resort to macho camp or self-conscious androgyny; for the audience, their impersonations are the occasion for more willing suspension of disbelief. Inevitably the gender bending of this attractive cast creates new erotic overtones; just as inevitably, Shakespeare’s works absorb every treatment they get. (Well, maybe not Goodman’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)

Scogin, who has labored so well for the Bard in roles with Shakespeare Repertory, is perfectly at home in this play’s territory. That authenticity shows in all 11 performers, and best in the two gentlepersons. Considering her character’s duplicities, Jean Adamak as Proteus is surprisingly sympathetic; Adamak portrays him as impetuously infatuated rather than calculating or selfish. Since these are the excesses of a good heart, Valentine’s forgiveness here makes sense (as it didn’t in Center’s production). Kellie Lowery gives her ardent, decent Valentine an unflashy integrity; she refuses the temptation to play up his self-pity and presents what is more moving, Valentine’s bewilderment over a best friend’s betrayal.

Considering the cast’s makeup, the fact that the female parts are played straightforwardly makes “female” qualities seem less than absolute. Here, too, the urge to camp up the so-called feminine qualities was wisely resisted. Lisa Hodsoll’s Silvia is the gracious lady, except when she’s hotly repudiating Proteus’s unsought ardor. As Julia, Eileen Glenn plays her trouser role with enough grace to set it off from the real trouser parts in the production.

Deft comic work comes from Allison D. Halstead as the sprightly servant, Speed, and from Coleen Kane as the stupid servant, Launce. Kane has a little-girl voice that she can raise to Wagnerian levels, and she throws in other cute stuff–ventriloquism, mimicry–for good measure. She depicts Launce’s dogged devotion to Crab, his mischievous mutt, with touching abandon. (Crab here is a huge stuffed blue beagle–not nearly the scene-stealer that the incredibly sad-eyed live pooch was in Center’s production.) As Silvia’s increasingly protective father, Adrienne Solid is magisterial or hysterical as needed, while Diane Zimmer plays Valentine’s splenetic rival, Thurio, with the ridiculous eagerness Shakespeare gives his doomed suitors.

Whenever a new staging shakes up Shakespeare, it can only do him justice. Footsteps’ revisionism made me wonder why, though in so many of his plays–As You Like It, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice–the female characters disguise themselves as men, the male characters avoid female drag (except Flute as Thisby in A Midsummer Night’s Dream). I guess the boys who played the women were more androgynous and inspiring to playwrights than the men who played the men. But it may also be that those Renaissance men weren’t quite as emotionally untrammelled as the Footsteps theory maintains. Elizabethans were sexists, too.