San Diego theater has been such a drag lately, but in the best sense of the word. Men are getting in touch with their feminine side, and women vice versa.
In a historical context, however, audience members wondering if there's a penis under that dress is nothing new to the stage.
“[Gender-bending] is a long-honored theatrical tradition, starting with Shakespeare-and probably before Shakespeare,” says Los Angeles-based playwright Michael Kearns. “Oftentimes, people think that this is something new-their frame of reference is Rocky Horror Picture Show. But it's been happening... since the beginning of theatre.” It's happening, it seems, more than ever in San Diego.
North Coast Repertory Theatre repeatedly extended its recent run of the crowd-pleasing comedyPagean, in which some lovely dolled-up men comprised the play's cast. It was the best-selling show in North Coast Rep's 21-year history, pulling in more than $200,000. In July, Women's Repertory Theatre cast a production of Shakespeare's Othello entirely with the fairer sex and made some daring choices-an onstage rape and a playful yet raunchy love scene. On Aug. 10, Los Angeles actor Rex Lee portrayed a repentant Winona Ryder at 6th@Penn in Michael Kearns' My Name is Winona and I'm a Shoplifter. Coming up are couple more doozies. This fall, Eveoke Dance Theatre presents, as it puts it, “a bunch of woman-ish, pussy-pink, wild, feminist whores” in another Shakespeare great, The Taming of the Shrew, reversing the gender of all the roles. In October, Diversionary Theatre will produce the horror/farce The Mystery of Irma Vep in which two male actors will play a slew of characters, both male and female.
In Irma Vep, actors David McBean and Farhang Pernoon will play a combined total of seven characters plagued by varying degrees of sanity. “It's a bitch,” says McBean of playing a woman. He's already made a name for himself dressing up like a girl, earning a San Diego Playbill “Billie” award for his portrayal of the Gidgit-esque character Chicklet in Diversionary's Psycho Beach Party. He also appeared in North Coast Rep's Pageant. Diversionary is no stranger to role reversals. The tiny powerhouse theater in University Heights regularly chooses gender-bending scripts. Managing Director Chuck Zito can't say enough about the talent of David McBean, who he said is “able to reveal a lot about a character very quickly.” Flexibility is certainly key to an actor being able to portray the opposite gender. McBean, in fact, will do some thespian gymnastics in Irma Vep when he plays two characters who are on stage simultaneously. “Basically, he has a scene with himself,” laughs Zito.
Reversed-gender casting isn't always just for a laugh, though. It can make a bold dramatic statement as well. “We're all bogged down by horrific stereotypes,” says Kearns, who himself has played such far-ranging characters as a black female hooker. “When you're looking at the heart and soul issues of a human being, you'll probably find more similarities than you will differences.”
Even with a lighthearted, campy play like My Name is Winona, Kearns believes that a viewer will come away somewhat enlightened. “I wouldn't drive to San Diego if I didn't think that at the end of the show somebody didn't have something beyond the camp or silly element,” he says. “I would hope that the audience would somehow confront their own sexism.”
McBean agrees: “Gender is such a huge issue in our society. [Gender bending] expands how gender roles are perceived.”
Eveoke Dance Theatre has a similar aim with its production of Shrew, though they'll use a different approach. Liv Kellgren, who plays Petruchio, the male lead, explains: “We're not trying to have it be men playing women and women playing men.” Instead, the characters dress the gender of the actor, rather than the character. In other words, Kellgren dons a pink bikini and motorcycle boots-it's a woman playing a man, dressed as a woman... sort of.
Kellgren, who is preparing for the role by gathering images of women doing traditionally “male” activities, also played Petruchio in a workshop performance of the production in 2001. “We had a man in the audience who was actually quite outraged that a woman would treat a man that way,” Kellgren recalls, referring to Petruchio's rough treatment of his-uh, her-wife, Kate.
Zito explains that gender-reversal can be a way to lead “the more obtuse” viewer to see sex-based issues in a new light. “Gender-bending is a great way to get a feminist message out on stage,” he says. He cites a play Diversionary recently produced called Cloud 9. Carol Churchill, author of Cloud 9, is one of few playwrights, Zito says, who writes reversed-gender parts and gets noticed by the likes of Broadway. “She's great because she writes her politics right into the script.”
While they may be making political statements, the actors confronting their opposite-gender sides are enjoying themselves. Kellgren says she appreciates the “diversified roles” gender-bending provides for her. As for McBean, despite the discomfort of the requisite eyebrow-, leg- and arm waxings, “playing a woman,” he says, “is actually really fun.”