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Girls Just Wanna Be Boys

Two productions showcase Shakespeare’s predilection for the gender disguise gimmick

One of Shakespeare’s favorite plot devices in his comedies is the girl dressed up as a boy. Though this gimmick usually sparks comic situations, these are not transvestite pranks, but matters of grim necessity. Viola in “Twelfth Night,” Imogen in “Cymbeline,” Rosalind in “As You Like It,” all change their corsets for codpieces to protect themselves when they are cast out into a strange land. And in “The Merchant of Venice” Portia becomes a male lawyer to save the title character’s life. These are smart, resourceful women, but it’s not until they get themselves up as men that they are really free to exercise choice, independence and power.

The cross-dressing bit is central in two Shakespearean productions in the 2004 summer theater season in Western Massachusetts—"As You Like It," the season opener at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, and “The Merchant of Venice” on the Hampshire Shakespeare Company’s outdoor stage in Hadley.

S&Co’s offering is exuberant, incessantly witty and altogether delightful. Sarah Rafferty and Anne Gottlieb, playing Rosalind and her companion Celia, are newcomers to the company, and their lively interaction is the show’s pivot point. In Shakespeare’s longest female role, Rafferty is entrancing. From the start her Rosalind is no simpering flower, and when she’s exiled from her uncle’s court and enters the Forest of Arden as a man, Rafferty finds the fun not in a parody of masculine voice and gesture, but in Rosalind’s initially self-conscious but increasingly brazen role-playing.

A squad of company veterans give strong support. Jonathan Epstein is the willfully morose philosopher Jacques; Kevin Coleman is the ironic (and horny) jester, Touchstone; Dan Cleary and Jason Asprey are amusingly rustic shepherds; and James Robert Daniels carries off two mirror-image roles—bad Duke Frederick who rules his genteel court with an iron hand, and his good, banished brother who happily roughs it in the Forest of Arden, finding “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.”

Eleanor Holdridge’s production treats the split between the dark, treacherous court and the sunlit freedom of the forest in black and white—literally. Kris Stone’s set and Jacqueline Firkins’ baroque-period costumes are marvels of visual imagination. The stage is a monochrome checkerboard, and the people at court wear black robes which change to white when they enter the magical forest, where the local shepherds frolic in Crayola colors.

“The Merchant of Venice” is one of the Bard’s so-called “dark comedies.” Here too, the plot turns on a cross-gender disguise. Portia is a wealthy heiress, master of her own estate and a retinue of servants. But she has no power outside her domestic sphere, until she strides into a courtroom in the robes of a judge-advocate. And even though in this case the subterfuge is an urgent matter of life and death, Portia, like Rosalind, embarks on it with a willing accomplice in a spirit of playful adventure.

In Lucinda Kidder’s briskly paced production, as in Shakespeare & Company’s, the center of energy is in the relationship between the two masquerading women. Susan Boyle Dziura and Tary Coppola spark off each other beautifully. And Coppola’s impish Nerissa is well matched by Steve Angell as her high-spirited lover; these two give much the strongest performances in the supporting roles. Dziura is a no-nonsense Portia, who delivers the famous “quality of mercy” speech not as a plea but a lecture.

That speech is directed, of course, at Shylock, Shakespeare’s most troubling and controversial character. A money-lending Jew whose penalty for default on a loan is a pound of the debtor’s flesh, he embodies every hateful anti-Semitic stereotype, but he’s also a complex and disturbingly human creation. Shylock is played by Walter Carroll, sporting a magnificent Hebraic beard but no phony Yiddish accent, he makes Shylock neither a monster nor a victim, but rather a matter-of-fact businessman with a keen sense of pride, who is goaded to revenge by the arrogance of his Christian neighbors.

The Hampshire Shakespeare Company is a community theater, with neither the budget nor the depth of talent available to its Lenox cousin. But in at least one category it hase riches galore. In the company’s summer home on a school campus, Mother Nature paints the scenery. The backdrop to the open-air stage is a sunset panorama of rolling farmland framed by the Mount Holyoke Range.

“The Merchant of Venice” and “As You Like It” are quite different comedies, the one weighted with moral complexities, the other a carefree hymn to the simple life. But they share Shakespeare’s taste for conflicting passions, and his attraction to strong, free-spirited women.

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