What a Piece of Work Is Woman!

In the New Shakespeare-Inspired Play 'Roses and Thistles,' Vortex Once Again Sows Seeds of Feminism

What a Piece of Work Is Woman!

Ah, Shakespeare: Immortal Bard of Avon. England's finest poet. Playwright without peer. Male chauvinist pig.

Oh, do you have a problem with that last one? You probably think that the great Will couldn't have been a demeaning, condescending jerk where women were concerned, that his insight into the human heart was too profound for him to discriminate on the basis of gender. After all, he created some of the most intelligent, active, and emotionally complex female characters in all of dramatic literature.

Well, sure, that's the party line. But a quick survey of the canon reveals that his treatment of women in those plays wasn't always terribly sympathetic. Lady Macbeth? Let's see, she helps her hubby kill his way to the top, then she goes nuts and dies. Ophelia? She gets totally rejected by her boyfriend, goes nuts, and kills herself. Juliet? Gets rejected by her dad, has to go through this creepy simulated death, only to wake up and find her lover dead, and she kills herself. Cordelia? Also rejected by her dad, forced to move to France (!), then when she comes home, she gets caught by her sisters' henchmen and is hanged. And her sisters, Goneril and Regan? They fight over their dad's kingdom, cheat on their husbands (with the same guy!), kill each other. Desdemona? Accused of infidelity -- falsely -- but her hubby believes it and strangles her. Hamlet's mom Gertrude? Also killed by her husband, albeit accidentally. Titus Andronicus' daughter Lavinia? Raped, has her tongue cut out and hands chopped off, and has to carry one of her detached hands in her mouth!

Okay, okay, admittedly those are all serious plays. So what about the comedies? Oh, like the one in which the woman gets "tamed" by some guy who wants to marry her for money? Or the one in which the fairy queen gets put under a spell by her husband and is made to fall in love with an ass? And when the spell wears off, she still goes back to him? Or the one in which the young bride is falsely accused of infidelity by her fiancé, on their wedding day, at the altar? Or maybe just the ones in which all those bright, vivacious women -- Rosalind, Viola, Portia, Imogen -- masquerade as men? Or the ones in which those smart, strong-willed women -- Beatrice, Miranda, Hermia, Helena, and so on -- give up their independence to be married to guys who, by all appearances, aren't nearly their equals in wisdom or resolve?

Now, granted, the guys in Shakespeare's plays suffer their share of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But as a rule, the men are never the second-class citizens that the women are. They are the merchants, the warriors, the powers of government and commerce -- they're always in the foreground. Whenever women are in the foreground, they almost always have to share it with a guy (who gets top billing): Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Troilus and Cressida. More often than not, though, women simply aren't in the foreground. They're relegated to the back, behind the men, providing support to the really important characters -- and submitting to their will, content to be their property, to be mistreated or married off to the highest bidder as their menfolk please. In that light, the brutalities and inequities visited on Shakespeare's women bear a crueler tinge: the ugly purplish shade of abuse.

Well, after four centuries of being berated, belittled, betrayed, bullied, battered, and butchered, of being kept on the sidelines with their mouths kept shut, Shakespeare's women have had enough. They're ready to speak out, to give Will a piece of their minds. And in playwright Susan Kelso's Roses and Thistles, they do just that. Ten Shakespearean heroines commandeer the stage from their "biographer" and, with the help of Virginia Woolf and Shakespeare's sister Judith, as imagined by Woolf in A Room of One's Own, make him listen to the injustices and indignities they -- and women across the ages -- have suffered.

Oh, our playwright hasn't a clue that that's where the evening is headed when he opens this Vortex Repertory Company production. He introduces his "roses and thistles" -- his terms for these women, the former being daughters of duty, the latter women of will -- with effusive pride; the face of actor Joseph Macdonald beams. In his modern black tailcoat, cream-colored vest, and white gloves, he looks like some latter-day high-society swell (or possibly a ringmaster) and calls to mind a designer displaying his spring collection or a pleased papa officiating at his daughters' coming-out party.

But that all changes soon enough, when Virginia and Judith arrive and the women begin to voice their complaints. Macdonald's sunny visage dissolves into pop-eyed befuddlement. His Will doesn't get it, hasn't a clue why these women are dissatisfied. And it takes being gagged and trussed up like a holiday turkey (insert your own joke about clueless males here) and forced to sit through a 10-part refresher course in who these women are and what they went through to enlighten him.

What a Piece of Work Is Woman!

One by one, the Shakespearean heroines step down from the pedestals set across the stage and air their grievances: the Egyptian ruler Cleopatra; the novice Isabella from Measure for Measure; Cressida, lover to Troilus; Margaret, queen to Henry VI; the innocent Perdita from The Winter's Tale; and so on. Each recaps the plot of the play in which she appears, adds a little historical context, steps onto a miniature stage and replays a key moment from her dramatic life in the words Shakespeare penned for her, and articulates how she was ill-served by the situation, the play, the author, mankind.

As none of these women belong to the Bard's greatest hits, their reminders are welcome. After all, beyond a few honors-list English majors, how many people are likely to know Constance from King John or Emilia from The Two Noble Kinsmen? For that matter, how many are likely to know The Two Noble Kinsmen at all, much less associate Shakespeare with it, much less be able to identify the Amazon warrior embodied by Kristi Fleming here and know her story?

And she has a story, as do all these women. Here is Portia, not the legal eagle of The Merchant of Venice, but the devoted spouse of Brutus in Julius Caesar, offering a gripping account of the battle to win her husband's confidence. Laura Criswell, a vision of elegance in a black velvet gown and fur stole, provides a stark contrast to this image of refinement as she describes wounding herself in the thigh to prove her trustworthiness. Here is Constance, whose young son Arthur has been deemed a threat by King John. His death turns this proud woman into a pillar of grief, and Michelle Fowler conveys the wrenching pain of a mother's loss. Here is Volumnia, mother to Coriolanus, also suffering the loss of a son, though hers is an adult whose resistance to the masses led him to be branded a traitor, banished, and ultimately killed. In her indigo dress suit of World War I vintage and stiff posture, Traci Laird's Volumnia cuts a regal figure, but when she speaks of Coriolanus, Laird reveals the human heart beneath the military facade, the stabbing pain and outrage Volumnia feels at her son's fate.

Outrage unites all these women, and taken together with the serial structure of the play and the bound-up Bard, it feels at times as if this is some kangaroo court and they are testifying against the defendant, William Shakespeare. That's an unsettling realization for those of us who revere the great playwright and the richly expressed humanity of all his characters, but it's provocative in just the right way: If this paragon of human drama had a blind spot where sexism is concerned, can any of us be sure that we're free of the same fault?

Of course, indicting the world's greatest playwright -- and, by extension, the audience -- for crimes against women is a tricky strategy for a dramatist. It's rife with opportunities to alienate fans of Shakespeare, anyone who feels that such feminist battles have long since been fought and won, and just about anybody with a prick (insert another of your own jokes here). That may be why Kelso avoids an indictment of the Bard. Just as she takes pains to make the characters she includes here accessible to every member of the audience, regardless of his or her familiarity with Shakespeare's plays, she takes pains to take the play beyond a one-dimensional hard-line feminist critique. She frees Shakespeare and allows him to join the women on an odyssey across time, to share in the knowledge of a day when women enjoy greater freedoms. Kelso frees the women, too, allowing each to divest herself of a piece of her costume that symbolizes some restriction or encumbrance of self. Maybe most telling, she takes pains to include laughter in her play. Kelso has Cressida play the fool -- in the Shakespearean sense, leavening the proceedings with saucy truth-telling. And Wendy Goodwin dishes out the character's irreverent observations with a wry and salty wit. She is a figure extravagant and memorable.

The same could be said for the ensemble as a whole. The dozen women onstage create a vivid group portrait of female strength and personality. Their extravagance is drawn from both Pamela Wolf Fletcher's stylish and richly textured costumes and they are memorable for their own conviction in the words they say and characters they play, as well as the power they draw from each other. It's all too rare to see 12 women share a stage together nowadays -- outside of a revival of Clare Boothe Luce's The Women or the curtain call of Jane Martin's Talking With..., how often will you see such a thing? And such a thing is worth seeing. It generates an uncommon electricity, this gathering of women. And you want to see more of them. In fact, you wish they had more to do than reciting excerpts from the plays they're in.

That may be where Roses and Thistles lets its women down. The structure Kelso employs is so rigid that the women it showcases are locked into doing the same thing. It's limiting to the characters (not to mention the actresses, even allowing for the nuggets of Shakespeare), and as an audience we're conscious of the repetitiveness -- the sense of spontaneity about what we're seeing evaporates. The level of dramatic tension at work is about equal to that of a classful of students giving book reports.

Of course, that's a critique of the play by conventional measures, and the play is not about being conventional. It exists to challenge the prevailing notions of the portrayal of women in Shakespearean drama and, by extension, the world. It seeks a new path in the world, a path of justice and fairness for women, and to reach it, the play dares to venture outside the bounds of traditional narrative. It treads in the realm of pageant and ritual, where repetition and symbol invest action with power. It's a play that's looking for a better way, and it doesn't mind being different if it gets it there.

As such, Roses and Thistles embodies everything that has made -- and continues to make -- Vortex Repertory Company special in the Austin theatre scene. From the outset, Vortex has shown a commitment to theatre that engages its audience emotionally, intellectually, and politically, that works to address social issues, to liberate the chained, to change lives. And it has consistently been willing to break rules, to challenge norms, to play with forms, to find that theatre. Most of that is owed to company artistic director and earth mother Bonnie Cullum, who has devoted herself to creating a safe space in which to take theatrical risks, some of which have been enormous. And from the standpoint of the audience, those risks may not always have appeared to pay off. But they have paid off, in ways that are only apparent backstage or in the long view: in the encouragement of artists to create something new and original, in nourishing their desire to experiment, in building connections, in forging a way into the future, in building a family.

Roses and Thistles is part of that grand continuum of new theatrical work, political theatre, social theatre. Because some of this territory has been covered previously, some viewers might be tempted to dismiss the subject with a "been-there, done-that" shrug. And they're entitled.

But just because the problem has been identified, because someone has broached the subject once or twice or 20 times doesn't mean the problem has gone away. You look at this city, which has an abundance of talented women theatre artists, among them some of the city's finest directors and artistic directors, and still three-quarters of the plays that are produced locally are written by men. That means that women here in the 21st century are still finding most of their voices provided by men. Certainly, we've made headway since Shakespeare's day, but the scales are far from balanced. end story

Roses and Thistles runs through March 10, Thu-Sun, at the Vortex, 2307 Manor. Call 478-LAVA for info.

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