Mauckingbird Theatre Company presents a gender-bent look at Shakespeare’s famous play
for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated
—from William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 20, widely seen as a homoerotic paean to a young male muse, “the master mistress of [his] passion”
It was the language and drama of Shakespeare and other classic playwrights that first attracted Peter Reynolds to the theater, but as a gay man he was dismayed by the state of modern gay theater. “I’ve seen a lot of new gay work that I haven’t particularly liked,” he says. “Many of them are what we call ‘underwear plays’ — vehicles to get gay men or women in underwear.” Reynolds co-founded Mauckingbird Theater Company in 2008 to produce professional gay-themed theater using the classic texts he loved. Its first production was a version of Moliere’s The Misanthrope.
For Reynolds and his company, adapting these great works of theater by changing the gender and sexual make-up of the leading couples brings new meaning to the plays and the relationships they explore. Mauckingbird’s latest production, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, now onstage at Temple’s Randall Theater, presents an ideal vehicle for the company’s gender-bending re-interpretation. The action revolves around four Athenian youths, two boys and two girls, on the run in a magical forest world where social conventions are disregarded and love is in flux. Adapting this for a gay theater seemed easy: merely switch the genders of two of the young lovers.
It was the hopeless lovesickness of one of the characters that first attracted Reynolds to the play. “Helena is so lovesick she’s silly — madly, passionately in love with Demitrius,” he says. “I recognized myself at that age, in that feeling of being single-mindedly hooked on a person.” Unsure which characters should have their genders switched, Reynolds took the advice of his co-director Lynne Innerst, resident voice and speech director at Mauckingbird, who suggested they go off the strengths of the actors who auditioned for the parts. It was perhaps natural that Helena ended up as a young male in the production.
Demitrius, the object of her desires, remains a male pursuing a heterosexual relationship with Hermia (now in a lesbian couple with a female Lysander). The fairies of the forest drug Demetrius to fall in love with Helena instead, but when the potion wears off he finds his love for Hermia has “melted like the snow” and he has come to his “natural tastes” — a love for Helena.
It is revelations such as this that make Mauckingbird’s production so valuable not just to a LGBT audience, but to the theater-going public in general. Sexual ambiguity and playfulness run through many of Shakespeare’s plays, with cross-dressing disguises a common plot device, and in late 16th century theater, all roles, including those of female leads, were played by men or boys. Directors find varied success changing the locale or time period of Shakespeare’s famous works, but when it works, such a switch can shed new light on the many shades of meaning in his text. In this light, a gender-bent re-imaging makes for a perfectly fitting change.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
Through September 12
Randall Theatre at Temple University, 2020 N 13th Street (13th and Norris Streets)
Mauckingbird Theatre Company
PHOTO CREDITS: John Flak
Published by Philly2Philly.