Vancouver's Classic Chic Production of The Winter’s Tale features an entire cast of women.
Vancouver's Classic Chic Production of The Winter’s Tale features an entire cast of women.

While the idea of gender-bending one of Shakespeare’s plays will be nothing new to Vancouver audiences, Classic Chic Productions takes the concept to an entirely different level with an all-female staging of The Winter’s Tale.

[pullquote]“I drove up with all my costumes and swords and now we’re getting to open this show with twenty amazing women” – director Lisa Wolpe[/pullquote]”The idea was borne out of a discussion after auditioning for Bard on the Beach by a number of the women that will appear in this production.  They realized that there simply wouldn’t be enough roles for all of them [on the Bard stages] and decided to band together to create their own company,” recalls Lisa Wolpe, who has come to Vancouver from her home in Los Angeles to direct, and where she also happens to be Artistic Director for the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company.

Having visited Vancouver back in February to help with a fundraiser for this newly created all-female ensemble, Wolpe agreed to step in after the company’s first director left.

“I drove up with all my costumes and swords and now we’re getting to open this show with twenty amazing women,” enthuses Wolpe, whose pedigree includes playing some of the meatiest male roles in Shakespeare’s plays, and as an in-demand director of all-female casts around the globe.

Having performed in and directed The Winter’s Tale a number of times already, Wolpe looks to it as an amazing fairy tale of respect for the divine feminine and a perfect match for this all-female staging.  “It is also a celebration of rebirth and springtime, an ancient Easter story that is full of bleak misogyny on the one side and this amazing fun and redemptive story on the other,” she says.

First performed in 1610, The Winter’s Tale is difficult to classify.  Originally considered a comedy, many scholars now place it among Shakespeare’s “problem plays” with its combination of tragedy and comedy.  It tells the story of King Leontes who has become convinced that his wife Queen Hermione has been unfaithful with the King of Bohemia, Polixenes.  Warned by the King’s trusted courtier, Camillio, who has been sent to poison her, the two run away together to Bohemia.  In the meantime, another member of the King’s court, Antigonous, is ordered to leave Hermione’s newly born daughter on a desert shore.  As luck would have it, the daughter is left on the coast of Bohemia and taken in by a shepherd and his son.  Sixteen years later, she ends up being courted by Polixenes’ son, Prince Florizel, who has disguised himself as a shepherd.

Lisa Wolpe directs the all-female cast of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale for Classic Chic Productions.
Lisa Wolpe directs the all-female cast of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale for Classic Chic Productions.

Story aside, for Wolpe, performing Shakespeare by an all-female cast is not about restating male roles, but in having the women becoming those men.

“It is the same process, plus one more,” says Wolpe of how she helps her actors.  “It is about inhabiting space, and breath control, and emulating what a man would do. If you’re not walking a mile in a man’s shoes, you’re not playing the part.”

That isn’t to say there isn’t acknowledgement that these male roles are played by women, but as Wolpe explains they become performances “through the prism of a woman’s experience”, rather than a gender reinterpretation.  It is also an opportunity for female actors to challenge themselves with some of the larger roles that Shakespeare has written for men.

“When you can inhabit a man’s world you don’t just get to play a victim,” says Wolpe.  “Or a wife, a girlfriend, or a whore.  The female roles can get quite repetitive and there is something very strengthening and powerful in being able to explore these roles as women.”

Not one to shy away from politics, citing the recent United States Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision that will allow employers with religious objections to opt out of providing contraceptives under Obamacare, Wolpe says that it is also about creating a balance of gender on the stage.

“Seeing all white men on a stage is disappointing and not representative of the society we live in,” says Wolpe.  “Besides, half of the theatre-going public is female and they are simply not seeing themselves fully represented on stage.”

And while Wolpe is quick to point out that there are many contemporary playwrights that are writing strong roles for woman, for her it is about being able to fully explore the works of who she calls “the greatest writer in history”.

“Contemporary work is just not the same as Shakespeare,” she says.  “[Shakespeare] excites the brain, it excites the heart and it is important that we keep the beautiful words he has created alive in an era of 140 character tweets.”

The Winter’s Tale plays the PAL Studio Theatre ( 581 Cardero St, Vancouver) July 26 – August 9.  Visit http://classicchic.ca for tickets and information.

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