Gail Cronauer, left, as Richard 3 & Alison White as Buckingham
Revamping Shakespeare by casting women in traditionally male roles is what Judith Shakespeare Company has been about for the past nine years. Founder Joanne Zipay was involved in theater in California, but moved to New York in 1993 with her actor husband, after he got a part in The Spider Woman on Broadway.
Soon after I got here, I became frustrated by the lack of imaginative casting of women in Shakespearean roles, and the mediocre quality of Shakespeare Off-Broadway, Zipay recalls, so I founded JSC. The company has a two-part mission - bringing Shakespeares language to life, and expanding the presence of women in theater. We draw from a pool of about 50 people for each production, and we do lots of gender bending and gender reversal.
Richard 3, running this month at TADA Theatre in Chelsea, is JSCs 19th offering, and it marks the OOBR winning companys completion of the history cycle-all the Richards and Henrys - of Shakespeares plays.
Its also our first full production of gender-blind casting, with women in title roles, says Zipay. Response to our casting has been great. People get very excited and say that they can understand and experience new things in Shakespeare just through hearing womens voices and seeing their bodies on stage.
For their unique interpretation of Richard 3, Zipay and company has used the backdrop of sex, drugs and rock n roll to spice things up a bit. Why?
The idea is that there are no nice people in the play at all, the director explains. For interest, we make them sexy and put them in the bad behavior, raunchy world of rock n roll. Our setting is the modern era, possibly New York, especially the East Village, like CBGBs. The plot of Richard 3 is that Richard wants to be king so desperately he begins to murder people who are in the way. He becomes a tyrant king and eventually comes to a bad end. But its a lot of fun to see him rise and fall in our production. We really went with the R & R bad boy image, complete with substance abuse, so its really a world of decadence.
Costumes and music complete the gritty scene, with an original rock score by composer/guitarist Mike Clemente, who appears live and is an integral part of the performance. The cast is led by guest artist Gail Cronauer (JFK, Boys Dont Cry), and the language of Shakespeare has been kept intact, though the length of this Richard 3 has been cut to three hours.
Weve got all kinds of couples in our version-same sex, different sex and reversal-so its really freestyle, notes Zipay. Its always challenging to find a way for such a complex play to come together, and make it fun. This play is very dark, but Richard is very humorous and a crowd pleaser. The trick here was to make it accessible but still truthful at the same time. Im actually a low concept director, so this was scary. Were using a lot of tech here, but the designers are all terrific.
Does she believe JSCs Richard 3 is particularly relevant right now?
Oh yes, she stresses. The state of fear were being asked to live in, the tyranny-it all fits right into Richard 3. Secrecy, abuse of human rights, hatred of the free press, antagonism toward women, the right wing religious faction-theyre all here. The play says that things are not what they seem, and though Id really love people to gain a renewed enjoyment of Shakespeare, there is also a message. Its that the audience should question how they become followers, and how dangerous that is for us in the world now. Hopefully, they will get the message-to see beyond the front-and realize they can make a different choice about things.