Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Female Mercutio

One of my fellow cast members confided in me that when he first found out Mercutio was "being played by a girl", he was pretty pissed. I actually felt startled by his admission; what had seemed daring to me a few years ago when I thought of playing the role had since become entirely acceptable in my mind. Even after we were deep in rehearsals, the male cast members had a hard time talking about Mercutio and Tybalt without saying "he" instead of "she", even as they were looking at the me or the actress playing Tybalt. It was fascinating and unexpected from an artistic bunch.

I'm aware that it is uncommon for a female to play the role, but it's also never felt like an unacceptable choice, like, say, a female Romeo. In my world, Shakespearean characters which are not tied into a heterosexual romantic relationship with another character could easily be played opposite gender. And in most cases, that would be as a female instead of the usual male. Think Jacques, Touchstone, Tybalt....

The tradition of females playing ostensible male roles is usually most easily applied to Shakespeare's clowns--Feste in Twelfth Night, Ariel in The Tempest, Fool in King Lear--but females playing other traditionally male roles is surprisingly resisted fairly often. A female friend told me she had asked to play Mercutio as her thesis role and the director refused, and ended up casting a male in the role. And certainly there are problems with being cast in other dream roles; while I fervently want to play Brutus in Julius Caesar, what do I do with the role of Portia, Brutus' wife, if I still wish to present a heterosexual relationship? Clearly other factors would need to change in that situation. And while I'm cool with all-male and all-female Shakespearean casts, I've never had a wish to be inside of that experience, but rather remain a supportive patron of those productions.

With Mercutio, some factors changed anyway. Unlike Brutus, Mercutio has no such defined romantic relationship. As soon as I started studying the script as a female Mercutio, I wondered if it would work for her to be romantically involved with Benvolio or in love with Romeo, or even both. I saw that there was room for it, if I was careful not to encroach on the obvious main thing about the show--the love of Romeo and Juliet. But why shouldn't Mercutio have feelings of her own, if my job as an actor is to be sure they don't interfere with the story line itself?

Nick, the actor playing Benvolio, early on decided to take advantage of this close friendship between these three (Benvolio, Mercutio and Romeo), with a woman in the middle. Since we went contemporary with concept anyway, he wanted to explore the idea that Benvolio had feelings for Mercutio that were stronger than he was letting on, mimicking the experience many of us often have today as male/female friendships become more and more prevalent. As we explored this in rehearsals, it was fascinating how different the scenes would go depending on how covertly or overtly he played those things, and how much I chose to recognize it or even take advantage of it. What an exciting rehearsal process that was for me; to work with the varying degrees and realize how that was informing my character and the friendship between the three, and indeed the play. After one rehearsal where Benvolio and Mercutio were almost constantly touching and holding hands and focused in to each other, Leo (Romeo) commented that it made his Romeo feel more isolated, more alone in his feelings and search for love--a strong application to a quality of that character that is usually ignored.

My own use of the text and subtext was great too, and even now as we perform I find the subtleties change every time. Some days my battle of wits with Romeo, and my Queen Mab speech to him, are filled with longing and need, even as I'm not revealing it outwardly to him. Other days I feel so platonic and then the touches of love for him rip through me searingly, much more than if I just let it show. It's made me realize that I have truly settled into the choice that Mercutio wants him as yearningly and secretly as Eponine wants Marius in Les Miserables. Ahhh, drama.

In the end, you commonly only hear from those who enjoy the work, with the rare exception of those who so disliked it that they wish to be heard as well. And so, the fact that the response to my female Mercutio has been tremendous is uplifting...and we haven't had a searing letter of disapproval sent to the company....just spite of the fact that I tumble, cartwheel, and am tossed around by my boys in a short skirt with red skivvies underneath. It's jolly good fun playing this role--it's one of the most challenging roles I've ever played because of the language, the brevity of the character, the antiquated wit I need to deliver; and the physicality of the role; and the combat; and the warring feelings inside of this character; her strength; her confidence; her vulnerability--and I forgot that she was written as a guy in the first place just a few days into rehearsal.

But then, I guess that's because Mercutio's not a guy. She's me.

I highly recommend all Shakespearean actresses ask to play this role as often as possible. It's a hell of a thing. And I freakin' love it.

1 comment:

  1. This is a really great read on a topic that implications on social perceptions of gender and sexuality. I'd like to see you publish this Renee.