The works of William Shakespeare are some of the of the most influential plays ever written, but these works also contain sexism, racism and outdated views on sexuality. In the era of #MeToo, how do theater companies stage such classics while also not condoning troubling messages in the plays?
That was the overarching question posted to panelists at a Cap Times Talk in Promenade Hall at the Overture Center on Tuesday evening.
“One of the things I look for is someone who understands that material and isn’t so uncomfortable with it,” said Kerry Reid, a theater critic who writes for the Chicago Tribune and Windy City Times. "If you’re going to do 'Carousel,' and you cannot come to terms with the fact that Julie Jordan is abused, then you probably should not be directing 'Carousel.' If you cannot come up with a way to address it that is honest, while not making excuses, if you can’t come to grips with that, maybe that’s not your show. And that’s okay.”
Joining Reid on the panel were Brenda DeVita, artistic director at Spring Green's American Players Theatre and director of this season’s “Born Yesterday,” Melisa Pereyra, acting core company member at APT and currently playing Rosalind in "As You Like It," and Aparna Dharwadker, professor of English and interdisciplinary theatre studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Cap Times reporter Lindsay Christians moderated the event.
DeVita said that when one takes on a "problematic" play, that artist has the responsibility to understand how that play is going to be perceived.
“You can’t ignore the problematic bits, you can try to mitigate them. If there are parts that don’t add anything to the play, you can eliminate them,” DeVita said.
The age of Shakespeare’s plays might be why audiences are willing to accept the problematic themes in his plays.
“When we are far away from something, we are willing to accept something on its own terms. But we reserve the right to respond and critique it, and I think that is the relationship we have with anything from the past,” Dharwadker said.
Dharwadker also said that “whatever is acceptable in fiction is not what is acceptable in life,” as long as people are able to appropriately respond to the troubling themes.
Pereyra said as an actor, she cannot separate fiction and life. She also said she has a responsibility to understand how times are changing.
“It’s my job as an actor to understand how that nature has shifted, and how I can aid in allowing all of you (the audience), with all your different points of view, in finding your story within me,” Pereyra said.
Pereyra said that there are some works that need to go away. She said that in order to bring in new stories, “We need to sacrifice some things we know.”
DeVita agreed, and said, for example, she hasn’t found a reason to perform Shakespeare's “Two Gentlemen of Verona.”
“At the end of that play, there’s a man asking for forgiveness for attempting to rape someone, and right now, and for the last few years, I’m not particularly passionate to tell that story,” DeVita said. “I think there are plays that should fall and will fall to the wayside.”
In response to a question from the audience, DeVita said she believes plays could be cast gender-neutral and she would be excited to do an all-female show, but would need to know “what story are we going to tell.” Pereyra was also enthusiastic about the idea.
Casting decisions related to race were at the heart of a question about another APT play running this season, South African playwright Athol Fugard’s “Blood Knot.”
The play is set in 1961 in South Africa, with two brothers that have the same black mother, but different fathers. One of the brothers can pass for white, which is the heart of the conflict.
Jim DeVita plays that brother, and while that part has historically been played by a white actor, APT has faced sharp criticism for not casting an actor of color in the role. The Cap Times' Christians wrote an extensive story about the conflict in June.
Brenda DeVita said “Blood Knot” is one of the most important plays when it comes to race relations, and she stood by the casting choice.
“That play at the beginning is a snapshot of a very specific time and place. It is not a domestic drama about blood brothers who are both black, it is an allegory about white people and black people, and Mother Earth,” DeVita said.
The work has led to "a race conversation that we haven’t had.”
DeVita also said that she welcomed the conversations, criticisms and feedback about the decision.