Shakespearing #44 by David Foley
Father of Lies: Gender and Shakespeare in Soho
Lisa Wolpe, founder and artistic director of the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company, has recently been performing a couple of theatre pieces at the Here arts space on 6th Avenue and Spring Street in Soho. In one, Macbeth3, she plays the title role in a stripped-down, three-actor version of Shakespeare’s play.
The other, Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender, is a solo show that positions her work (according to her bio, “[s]he has probably played more of the Bard’s leading male roles than any woman in history”) in the context of a turbulent and painful personal story.
Interestingly, the solo show is not very much about gender, or at least a better title might be Gender and the Alchemy of Shakespeare. Early on, Wolpe asks us to imagine two Stradivarius violins placed at opposite sides of a room. Pluck the A string of one, she tells us, and the A string of the other will start to vibrate. Anyone who responds to Shakespeare (and some don’t) will get the image. This is what Shakespeare manages to do more than any other writer: get our responsive chords vibrating. Wolpe’s piece is a profession of faith in those responsive chords, what she calls his “tuning fork.” It’s a notion both mystical and practical. She can speak with feeling about the thinning of the membrane between herself and the world when she plays Hamlet, and this thinning has ameliorative properties. It’s alchemical, to use Wolpe’s apt term. It breaks down barriers, builds empathy, and allows Wolpe herself to understand and forgive the traumas of her past.
These traumas—family suicides, an abusive stepfather, and the discovery of a family history with deep and tragic roots in the Holocaust—form the spine of the piece. She begins with a riff on Hamlet’s “To be or not to be,” and the question drives the show. It’s a piece about learning to be, learning to keep being when the option “not to be” keeps beckoning from the wings. That option has lured others off before her, including her father, a Holocaust survivor and former resistance fighter. The force of that central question drives her readings of Shakespeare. Wolpe is a fluent Shakespearean actor with an engaging command of the language and the stage. She commits herself to his words with passion and empathy, uncovering unexpected emotional layers in Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew” speech or Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is man.” It’s clear what gets Wolpe’s responsive chords vibrating.
There’s a political element to Wolpe’s take. “I feel the need for the world population to come together to come together in love and empathy rather than succumbing to a fruitless cycle of revenge and destruction,” she says in a program note. It’s a salutary, and I don’t think misplaced, faith in Shakespeare’s alchemy. Empathy, though, both in art and in politics, has its limits. What I miss in these readings is a quality in Shakespeare that I want to call play of mind. There’s always a part of the character’s mind engaged with itself at play. And this, too, has political implications.
I thought about this during Wolpe’s reading of Richard III. She plays him as a snarling villain. There’s undeniable power in this approach. You could even argue that it’s more politically urgent, giving oppression its true face. This approach necessarily sacrifices the dangerous pleasures, joys even, of Richard’s rhetorical flights” The power of the dazzling liar lies in his power to dazzle, in the oldest sense: to temporarily blind, to daze. Like Elizabeth in the scene Wolpe plays, we are dumbfounded, undone, by the man who doesn’t recognize the rules we play by. We don’t know how to fight him. (Insert contemporary parallel here.)
According to Frank Kermode, Macbeth is the victim of a lie, what Kermode calls “equivocation,” apparently a technical term for early moderns: deception by incomplete truth, such as the witches practice on Macbeth. “[A]s no man…can choose an apparent good in preference to a real one unless his will is corrupted by appearance,” says Kermode, “evil acts imply the constant presence of equivocating factors in the world of moral choice.” The most intriguing change made by Wolpe and her co-director, Natsuko Ohama, in Macbeth3 is to turn the witches into Satan, the father of lies. At one pleasurably disorienting moment, Satan, not the doctor, announces Lady Macbeth’s death.
Macbeth, too, is fascinated by the turnings of his own mind, but here the fascination is horror. He cannot stop thinking about himself thinking about his villainy. He’s a Richard III, to alter a phrase that’s been applied to a contemporary hero, “molested by the rumblings of a soul.”
A lot of that is likely to go missing in a production cut down to a little over an hour. You’ll get the highlights: the prophecies, the murders, Banquo’s ghost, “out, out damn’d spot,” “untimely ripped” but not Birnam Woods. I said in my Macbeth posting last year that the play reminded me of the horror comic books that disturbed me as a child, and that’s probably the best way to view this production. With its bombed-out trash heap of a set, the production’s best scenes seem to happen in the frames of a graphic novel. It makes for a briskly horrifying rendering of the play, and a fitting bookend to the horrors Wolpe unpacks so compellingly in her solo show.
Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender and Macbeth3 play until August 14th at the Here arts space.
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.