Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth is among the most gendered, its characters struggling with the ways their society expects them to act like men or women.
So it’s fitting that Soulstice Theatre’s foray into all-female Shakespeare takes the form of the “Scottish Play,” with every role played by a woman as a woman — albeit a woman still forced to choose between presenting as masculine or feminine.
Director Catherine Jones explains: Her take on Macbeth sets the play in a period shortly after World War I, when the young men of Europe went to battle in the trenches. Her conceit suggests they never returned, forcing the women who remained to realign themselves within their society’s patriarchy, choosing during puberty whether they will take on masculine gender identities (allowing them to wage war or rule) or feminine gender identities (allowing them to remain womanly but relegating them to the domestic sphere).
It’s a change that alters the nature of the play, without changing a word of Shakespeare’s regicidal text. “Our Lady Macbeth (Alicia Rice) has chosen to present feminine, so the way she expresses herself has to be in these very gentle ways,” Jones says. “(With) Macbeth (Amy Hansmann), because she’s trying to fit into this patriarchal social structure, everything’s coded as masculine — you want to be king, you have to be male.”
The result, she adds, is that the play’s two main characters, as well as many others, are forced to grapple with the way they choose to express their genders, not their biological sexes. This more nuanced approach shines the spotlight directly on the implications of Shakespeare’s gendered language — especially when the women start to challenge each other’s manliness or womanliness.
Changing every male role in Macbeth to a masculinely coded female role is an interesting dramaturgical experiment, but Jones says she knew it was one that would pay off when the show’s announcement drummed up a flood of interest even before she held auditions. Once she had a cast assembled, she says, they got together for a table read to discuss the play’s subjects and ended up discussing gender in modern society for several hours.
But Jones says that in many ways, getting to have such a rich discussion and exploration of women’s and gender issues is almost incidental to her and Soulstice’s original goal: finding a way to provide more opportunities for women to be on stage. During the show selection process, Jones says, most Shakespeare plays have to be discounted, because his works have so few opportunities for women. But this year, she came up with the idea of performing an all-female production, and Macbeth’s fixation on gender roles made it a clear frontrunner.
It also gave her the opportunity to have “ladies with swords” — not as tongue-in-cheek a rationale as it sounds.
Jones says female actors tend to have less training than male actors in stage combat, and what experience they do have tends to be against men, and often couched in domestic violence scenarios. Making all Macbeth’s characters women offered her and fight choreographer Christopher Elst a chance to change that for the dozen-and-a-half women in the cast.
To further suggest the monosexual nature of the play’s society, Jones says Elst specifically choreographed stage conflicts to reflect the different way women spar with each other, a more brutal and vicious style that lacks macho posturing.
“Violence as an expression is usually a masculine trait; women usually have to mask that,” Jones says. “So in a society where you are allowed to be violent, and even encouraged, they’re going to take every opportunity to do so.”
It’s certainly not an ordinary interpretation of the Bard’s work — but as an opportunity to have multiple women playing characters with greater depth than the witches three, Jones says, it’s a royal treat.
Soulstice Theatre’s production of Macbeth opens Jan. 16 and runs through Jan. 31. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and tickets are $20, $18 for students/seniors/military. For more information or to order, call 414-481-2800 or visit soulsticetheatre.org.