News Column

Gender-bending the Bard at Muhlenberg

November 20, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 20--Troy Dwyer, a Muhlenberg theater professor who teaches Shakespeare, says he has always had a "feeling of estrangement from my identity" in the classic works he taught students.

Dwyer, who is gay, says it bothers him that there is "no acknowledgement of same-sex desire" in Shakespeare's plays.

But the last time Dwyer directed a Shakespeare play and changed it to include same-sex pairings -- such as in 2011's "The Tempest" -- he says there was a backlash.

But now, he says, with the Defense of Marriage Act being struck down and same-sex marriage being recognized, the time was right to revisit a gender-bended Bard.

In his new production of "The Winter's Tale," same-sex couples share the stage with heterosexual couples in a modern take on the play. This time he says it doesn't matter if it "rankles sensibilities."

"This is a more deeply personal production that I realized," Dwyer says. "I realized if I wanted to see myself reflected in great stories, now was the right time for some very conscious cultural editing. These classics belong to me, too."

He says the sweepingly romantic story has long been his favorite, and he feels the story, which raises questions about the institution of marriage with its inherent issues of power and parity, reflects modern-day concerns of marriage equality by gender-swapping characters.

Florizel, the heir to the throne in Bohemia, is played by a woman, as is Perdita, a young woman brought up by shepherds but who actually is of royal blood. The two fall in love and the match is frowned upon by Florizel's father, King Polixenes.

Dwyer says the original conflict is class-based, but class differences aren't as resonant for today's audiences.

"But we do understand that a father might object to a same-sex pairing," Dwyer says. "The play's young lovers believe that marriage is something worth fighting for, which is a refrain we hear all the time in current discourse."

Dwyer also has made the married huntsman Antigonus a woman, as is Antingonus' wife Paulina.

"I see Antigonus as an Amazonian super-heroic woman," Dwyer says, "and it creates a married couple that is two women."

He also added a male same-sex couple among the minor characters.

"I'm just trying to get my people into a great show," he says.

Dwyer also has folded in dance and music into the fabric of the show, which he says was a departure at the time it was written and has "a real spirit of experimentation and rebelliousness."

He asked Muhlenberg student Allison Berger to create choreography that lends a "slight dance flavor."

"It's really cool," Dwyer says. "The theatrical can be better when inspired by choreography."

The movement component also helps separate the two intertwined kingdoms of Bohemia and Sicilia.

"It's like a big beautiful dream that the parts bleed into each other," Dwyer says.

Also separating the two lands is a rock wall that the characters must climb.

Dwyer based Bohemia on the "cow pastures in Georgia" he knew growing up, and dresses the residents in flannels and overalls, while Sicilia is a "lush, velvet drapery, brocade kind of world."

The production includes original music by Muhlenberg student Sean Skahill, who also portrays a minstrel.

Dwyer says music is very present in the play, and characters talk about music and musicality.

"The music and choreography makes it a more holistic and engaging experience for audiences," Skahill adds. "Music can express what you can't get out through just talking."

Skahill leads a group of wandering musicians that play flute, banjo and violin.

To create the often problematic bear, Dwyer has the actors create the bear with their bodies.

"The bear erupts out of the choreographic atmosphere, aided by lighting design," Dwyer says. "The bear devours Antigonus right in front of us. It's one of my favorite moments in the play."

Dwyer also has trimmed the play to two hours to expedite the action.

"Modern audiences are very different from 1610 audiences," Dwyer says. "They understand stories differently, and I think if you're going to do Shakespeare in 2013, you have to adapt to that different sensibility. That doesn't mean dumbing the play down or stripping out historical context. It just means being thoughtful about pacing and emphasis, and working to develop relatable characters."

-- "A Winter's Tale," 8 p.m. today through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, Muhlenberg College, Studio Theatre, Trexler Pavilion, 22nd and Chew streets, Allentown. Tickets: $15; $10, students. muhlenberg.edu/theatre, 484-664-3333.

'A Doll's House' at NCC

Northampton Community College will present "A Doll's House," the classic drama by Henrick Ibsen, the renowned 19th-century Norwegian playwright.

Called "the father of Realism," Ibsen dealt with realistic dialogue and psychological subtext. His plays are among the most frequently performed after Shakespeare's.

George Miller directs the production, which uses the award-winning translation by Irish playwright Frank McGuinness. In 1997, the Broadway revival of McGuiness' "A Doll's House" won the Tony Award for best revival.

The play, considered controversial when it was written in 1879, critically explores the traditional roles of men and women in 19th-century society, marriage and life. Nora, the mother of three children, seems to have the perfect life but feels she is missing something, and leaves to find meaning in her life.

The play stars NCC students Chloe Cole Wilson as Nora Helmer and Justin Ariola as Torvald Helmer. The cast also includes students Torez Mosley, Elayna Giordano, Katy Gray, Mark Ingram and Matthew Dunn.

"A Doll's House," 7:30 p.m. today through Saturday and Monday; 3 p.m. Sunday, Northampton Community College, Norman R. Roberts Lab Theatre, Main Campus, 3835 Green Pond Road, Bethlehem Township. Free with a donation of non-perishable food or a scholarship contribution. Reservations suggested. 610-861-5524.

'Flashdance the Musical'

Relive a 1980s pop phenomenon and see a new musical on its way to Broadway with "Flashdance: The Musical," at Philadelphia Academy of Music through Sunday.

The stage adaptation of the 1983 hit film is slated to come to Broadway in August 2014.

Set in Pittsburgh, the show follows 18-year-old Alex Owens, a steel mill welder by day and bar dancer by night, who dreams of attending the prestigious Shipley dance school. When she falls in love with Nick, her boss at the steel mill, things get complicated.

Jillian Mueller, who appeared on Broadway in the 2009 revival of "Bye Bye Birdie," plays Alex and Corey Mach, who was just in Broadway's "Hands on a Hardbody," plays Nick.

The show, which premiered in England in 2008, features the familiar high-energy dancing and the hit songs from the movie, many of which became Top 10 hits on the radio. Songs include the Academy Award-winning title song "Flashdance -- What a Feeling," along with "Maniac," "Gloria," "Manhunt" and "I Love Rock 'n' Roll." In addition, 16 new songs have been written for the show by Robbie Roth and Robert Cary.

The movie, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary, grossed more than $150 million and won a Grammy Award for its soundtrack.

Joining Mueller and Mach are Alison Ewing as Tess, Ginna Claire Mason as Gloria, DeQuina Moore as Kiki, Jo Ann Cunningham as Hannah, David R. Gordon as Jimmy, Matthew Henerson as Harry and Christian Whelan as C.C.

The production is directed and choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, who choreographed the Tony Award-winning musical "Memphis," as well as Broadway hits "Addams Family" and "Jersey Boys."

"Flashdance: The Musical" is part of the new Broadway Philadelphia season presented by the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts and the Shubert Organization.

-- "Flashdance: The Musical," 7:30 p.m. today, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St., Philadelphia. Tickets: $20-$100. http://www.kimmelcenter.org, 215-731-3333.

kathy.lauer@mcall.com

610-778-2235

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