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Shakespeare’s Women Reinterpreted

Rebekah Maggor plays actresses, not roles, in Huntington show

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Video courtesy of the Huntington Theatre Company, edited by Ann Marie Charland.

Playwright and actress Rebekah Maggor takes on a unique challenge in her one-woman show Shakespeare’s Actresses in America, the Huntington Theatre Company production now at the Boston Center for the Arts Wimberly Theatre: instead of playing the heroines of Shakespeare’s plays, she portrays nine different actresses, from Sarah Bernhardt to Claire Danes, as they enacted the roles. Her hope is to demonstrate how many different ways Shakespeare can be interpreted and to chronicle the way performance styles changed over the course of the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Maggor, a Huntington Theatre Company Playwriting Fellow, discusses the roles, and the ways each interpretation reflects an era in American theater, with BU Today.

BU Today: What are some of the challenges you face in embodying specific actors’ performances playing Shakespearean characters?
Maggor:
There are wonderful challenges involved in performing these Shakespearean roles as other actresses have performed them. I am not only performing the character of Juliet, but I am performing Juliet as Ellen Terry may have performed Juliet — which means I have done a lot of research on these actresses as women, as theater artists, and as interpretive artists and looked at their biographies, the way they approached the text, their analysis of these characters.

There are so many different ways to think of these different Shakespearean characters. There’s not just one correct way. And that, I think, is one of the very important parts of the show: that you get to see different versions of Hamlet, different versions of Juliet. This piece looks at reclaiming Shakespeare — not as a highbrow author or as a sacred author who has to be protected from ignorant audiences or overbearing actors, but really as a popular playwright. And that’s what these different interpretations show us.

How do the acting styles comment on a changing American culture?
One of the interesting things this piece shows is certainly how American culture has changed, and we see that reflected in how Shakespeare was performed in this country. What you see in the late 19th century is this grand melodramatic style that was a very popular form of theater, with some of the really bombastic great American Shakespearean actors. That also includes British actresses, like Ellen Terry, who appears in the show. Her style is histrionic, it’s enormous, it’s high and low. The vocal dynamics are extraordinary. But it also includes the poetry and it also includes the profound literary aspects of this text. And this kind of performance was a very popular type of theater. So you had people from all classes and socioeconomic groups going to the theater to see her towards the end of the 19th century.

But it’s also in this period that the style of performance started to change. And what you see is sort of a more poetic, intellectual interpretation of Shakespeare. So you see the theater shifting from being a mix of all social groups into a more highbrow entertainment. Julia Marlowe’s interpretation of Shakespeare was more intellectual and poetic. It tells us a lot about what was going on in the American culture at the time, because it was during this time, at the end of the 19th century, that a clear hierarchy was created. There was a separation between a kind of elite theater and one more focused on entertainment, which was vaudeville or the theaters that were performing in the Bowery. This reflects the emerging business elite in America.

I’m not a historian. I’m an actress. And I’m a theater artist. But I was amazed by how just looking at the way performing Shakespeare changed really shows us how our own culture changed in America.

What do you see as a particularly American interpretation of Shakespeare?
We have an interpretation in the show of Celia Adler, a Yiddish actress who performed the role of Desdemona in Yiddish at the Yiddish Art Theatre. They advertised the production as “translated and improved.” And they really made Shakespeare into a Yiddish playwright. And to me, that is an amazing thing to see.

We also talk about the wonderful, profound history of black Americans playing Shakespeare and bringing those diverse voices into playing this text and how this brings us to a different understanding of Shakespeare and also gives us a reflection of our own culture. So you really do see a diversity of voices coming into the picture just through looking at the performances of Shakespeare.

How do you want this show to change the audience’s perceptions of Shakespeare?
After they see the show, I hope that they feel empowered to have their own opinion about whether they liked an interpretation, and for what reasons. If we present them with so many different ways to interpret this author, they won’t feel that there’s a right or a wrong way — they could feel that there’s a way that really speaks to them.

Shakespeare’s Actresses in America is playing Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays through February 11 at the Wimberly Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont St., Boston. Performances are at 7 p.m. on Sundays and 7:30 p.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays. Tickets can be purchased online, by phone at 617-266-0800, or in person at the Calderwood Pavilion box office.

Robin Berghaus can be reached at berghaus@bu.edu.

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