Philly reviewers, it is Tim-on to get your shit together

Excuse the bad joke. I can’t help it. I pun when I’m pissed.

Ooo-hoo. Adrienne is angry.  (Can you hear it in the typing? CLACK! CLACK CLACK CLACK!)  I would write in all caps (LIKE THIS!) because that is how I feel, but you would probably stop reading, and I do NOT want you to stop reading.

If you frequent this blog you likely have a sense of what I think about the role of women in the contemporary theater scene.

(In the off chance you are new here, feel free to go back and read this, or this, or this, or this…)

So when I heard that the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective (or PAC) was doing a production of a Shakespeare play – Timon of Athens – that included a bunch of cross gender casting I was interested. Interested because I will be doing a similar (even more substantial) gender re-assigning in Clark Park’s Tempest this summer. Interested to see how they handled this gender switcheroo in context of the classical cannon. But most of all interested to see how people reacted to what they were doing.

And, like one sometimes does when one is intrigued by a colleague’s choices for a production, I read a few reviews about the show to see how it was received.

And now, as previously mentioned, I’m really really angry.

First off: my job here is not to defend this particular production. In fact, I have not yet seen this play. I will, next week. But I write this now, not yet having seen this play, quite intentionally.

There are statements in the reviews of Timon assessing creative choices that I cannot substantiate or discredit.  I do not know if the actors in the various roles are interesting to watch. I do not know if the opulence and greed of the play is borne out in the staging. I do not know if some of the problems that reviewers cite around this particular staging are true. Indeed, given that some of them appear in multiple assessments, perhaps some of the points they mention are quite valid.

But then again, I don’t know, I haven’t seen it yet. And my problem is not with the specifics of one stylistic choice or another.

Indeed, my problem here is quite the opposite.

I will say upfront that there are several actresses in this production I admire and respect, whose work I tend to like very much. And I am making such a long and belabored point of not knowing anything about the show’s specifics because I know that once I have seen the performance I may well be inclined to defend these performers’ specific choices. And I really don’t want that to get all muddled up with what’s really problematic here: the thing that’s really sticky and challenging.

I want to be absolutely and unwaveringly clear that my issue has nothing to do with giving specific critique to these particular people – be positive or negative – and everything to do with the blithe and blanket notions undercutting the women in this production that I see made under the banner of “criticism.”

“Them’s is fightin’ words.” You might be thinking.

You betcha.

Let’s start with Philly.com.  You can read the whole thing if you want to, but I’ll skip to this sentence starting off the final paragraph:

As director, Dan Hodge makes a tactical error in casting women in many of the male roles; it knocks the play off balance (tiny women playing cutthroats and shrill senators), and confuses the issues that have nothing to do with gender.

Ok. (deep breath)

Let’s play a little mad libs game. Pretend this statement isn’t about a play but a business. Everywhere there’s a statement about theater, I’ll replace it with a corresponding business word. Let’s see what we get:

As CEO, Dan Hodge makes a tactical error in hiring women in many of the male jobs; it knocks the company off balance (tiny women working as cutthroats and shrill managers), and confuses the business plans that have nothing to do with gender.

You wanna publish that in a newspaper and see what kind of letters you get?

I didn’t think so.

Having no women in a play doesn’t mean the play has nothing to do with gender in the same way that having a play with only white people has nothing to do with race. It has everything to do with gender: about our conception of what greed is, what it looks like, who is allowed to display it, and the gender with which we associate that quality.

If the play’s issues – greed, ruthlessness, heroism unrewarded – are indeed not about gender, than it really shouldn’t matter if a man or a woman displays those things. The point of the review should be whether the specific actor embodying that role is successful in doing so.

That you make a point to say that “tiny women” should not be onstage displaying those things says to me that you have now made this a play about gender in a way that Shakespeare did not. It says to me that you don’t think tiny women, in general, as a whole, are not suited to being greedy or ruthless. That you can look at a tiny women and know by virtue of her tiny woman-ness that she is neither of those things.

You dislike this particular actress? Fine. Cite the specifics of their performance. But to lump women as a category under the “not viable to play this role” category is demeaning and ignorant.

And don’t get me started on the misogyny inherent in the word “shrill.”

The lesson here is that men playing aggressive roles have the potential to be booming and commanding while aggressive woman onstage are annoying and screechy.  Ladies interested in Shakespeare’s works, please stick to Desdemona or Ophelia or Juliet or Cordelia or Lavinia and go die because you love a dude who is kind of an emotional asshole to you.

Or go be Lady Macbeth and kill yourself.

Or go be Cleopatra and die (again) because you’re an oversexed “gipsy.”

Or be really excited to get married.

Or a witch.

Who wouldn’t be totally satisfied with that?

Moving on.

Here is what Citypaper has to say. Again, feel free to read the whole thing but I’m skipping here to the summation at the end:

And while I understand the need for good women’s roles in an ensemble company like this one, it’s still a mistake to have Apemantus and several other key male characters played by women — Timon’s wretched world of greed and infighting is, in every sense, man-made.

Is it possible that this is worse? I think it is. Worse because of the infantilizing and diminishing way that it’s phrased.  It is the casualness of these words that more than anything makes me want to punch the paper upon which the words are written:

Dan, Dan, Dan… Silly man.

Oops! I think you made a “mistake”.

FYI, this play is male-driven. You might not remember because you’ve been around so many ladies (I mean 50/50 in the cast, but come on, that’s an awful lot for a Shakespeare play).

You forgot it’s about BIG things like “greed and infighting”. It’s not that this particular female performer is not powerful commanding. It’s not that this particular actress you’ve chosen is not ferocious or greedy or money hungry. It’s not that many of the women in your show are young apprentices and might be worth evaluating based on experience or talent instead of gender.

No, no. You didn’t realize that women are not capable of such things.

This story is “man-made.”

Oh, Dan. I hope you don’t make that mistake again…

Because “while I see the need for good women’s roles,” while I see that the two female co-founders of your company are excluded from this very large and powerful portion of the theatrical cannon, while I see the incredibly limited scope of what a woman is traditionally defined as in some of these plays, while I see the subtle and casual limitations that I am placing on them, while I see the constant barrage of definition that many works put on women, a definition they constantly have to battle against, while I see that the logical extension of my argument is that because I don’t usually see women play these roles and it feels weird to me I want you to stop doing it thus ensuring that women are never cast in these roles and making sure that I, nor any audience really, will ever ever acclimate to seeing such a thing –

While I see all of these things, I’d really rather not have to deal with that.

So could you just, you know, not make me think about it?

Punch. The. Paper.

I’m out.

– A

PS –  I sincerely hope that some of these reviews are a product of bad editing. If there is a fuller version, one that addresses some of my problems with generalizing here, I’d love to read them.

And, I would like to point out and credit reviewers like Howard Shapiro who manage to give their opinion about this piece without invoking a lady’s inherent inability to be greedy.

9 comments

  1. “who is allowed to display it,”
    I think this is the key really. For me, it comes down to one thing. I don’t see a lot of female characters that feel like me. That I recognize. As a theatre maker, I realized I was in a unique position to change that. I could create characters who were adventurous, complex, sometimes evil, always dynamic, and had an impact on the world around them… and were also women.
    If I can show the world women who were more than sex objects, deniers of sex, raisers of children, and the thing that comes right before the words “The End”, then maybe, just maybe, the world would allow me to be more than all of those things too.
    Right now, in stories, we are still fighting for this. The right to see female characters who are commanders, who are powerful, who are not capped at the description of “shrill.”
    And we have to keep making those stories- where women on stage are not just obeying the gender roles pre-assigned to them .
    Everywomen nor just Everyman…. one day…..
    The world will catch up- it usually does. Especially when artists (like you) don’t give them the chance.
    my rant for the day…..

  2. A. I completely agree with you, but I want to make a point about process: by linking to the reviews you mention, you encourage readers to click on them and read the reviews themselves. This drives up page traffic to those reviewer’s sites, WHICH IS ALL THE PUBLISHERS REALLY WANT. They don’t care too much about the content, because the content is just there to get eyeballs on the page, in hopes that the ads surrounding the articles draw in responses and earn the publishers a fee. I know you want to provide those links to source the quotes you are pulling, but I have to wonder if there’s a way to do so that specifically does NOT drive web traffic to the sites themselves.
    Rock on, lady–keep speaking truth to stupid.

  3. Excellent response to some bizarrely irrelevant criticism. If the cross-gender casting is flawed in the production, it is because Dan Hodge may not have capitalized on it’s implications within the world of the play he was creating. His choice was to make gender essentially irrelevant with regard to the status or power in the play. His egalitarianism was apparently offensive to a handful of local critics. This approach is consistent with Shakespeare’s own in this play. In As You Like It, or Coriolanus, or Tweflth Night, gender is crucial to the dramatic action–Timon is not that kind of play. I tend to think that non-traditional casting, whether applying to race or gender, can be an opportunity to confront cultural preconceptions and biases. I suspect most audience members can’t totally see past race or gender, so by making a non-traditional casting choice, a director will always be making some kind of statement or commentary on the play-as-written, whether he/she intends to or not. Better the director should grapple with the implications of the choice, rather than ignore them. I don’t think Timon of Athens is much of a play. Perhaps Dan Hodge might have made it a more interesting one if he had committed to stronger conceptual choices with his non-traditional cast.

  4. This situation makes me wonder if there isn’t a place for us, as artists, to begin creating our own place for criticism and review. Audiences really do want to know what’s going on and use reviews to evaluate what they might go and see. Perhaps we can help them by providing an artist sourced guide which will really speak to the work being created, rather than selling content. No one has a better critical faculty than your fellow artists.

    Also, as you prove here, many of us are darned good writers!

  5. Mackey, your writing makes me Punch. The. Sky.
    While I am afar, I still read various online publications about Philly arts to see what’s happening, but I don’t have the ability to go see the thing for myself or to see how far off base I can find someone else’s scribblings to be. And sometimes I wonder about these things, these casual words that rarely make, but often hinder, a production’s attendance because, as Kittson points out, there isn’t a place for an audience member to have access to the Artist Statement. Sure, you get a synopsis, but then you get a ridiculous smackdown review and that’s where many potential theatregoers stop.
    You wrote another article about reviews and their hindrance to artistic experience, so it surprised me that you didn’t harken back to that in this post as yet another case in point of how a review like this just goes to show how you can’t trust a review. But your average person won’t notice the writer’s ignorance. Or find the controversy stimulating enough to go see for themselves. We believe what we read.
    Also, another interesting comment by Steve, above. I didn’t even click the links, or want to. I trusted Adrienne’s selection as enough. Maybe I’m your average person, not looking to go further than her review of the reviews. Or maybe those of us reading this blog would have made traffic to those sites anyway. Hmmm. We can still read them (making the traffic), not agree with them, and then respond. Squeaky wheels do get grease. You just gotta squeak at the right person.

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