The Sacramento Shakespeare Festival is shaking things up in its 30th year as an iconic local production by flipping gender roles in the classic plays, “Romeo and Juliet” and “As You Like It.”
“Romeo and Juliet” will star an all-male cast, while “As You Like It” turns the concept on its head, adapting to modern times by tapping women to play all roles.
Recent headlines have provoked much discussion on the topic of gender identity, but Christine Nicholson, director of “Romeo and Juliet,” points out that the practice of casting men for female roles in Shakespeare’s plays dates back to the Elizabethan era (the practice, in general, has been around even longer and can be traced to Ancient Greece). She said the decision to cast the productions this way came from a desire to honor tradition, while also striving for equitable opportunities for the actors.
“We have wanted to approach a production in the original manner of Shakespeare for some time,” Nicholson said. “We also are consistently trying to achieve gender equity in our productions. Shakespeare’s plays that have 20 or more characters have roles for only three or four women at most because he wrote for all-male productions. Although we always try to cross-gender where possible, this year we felt that if we did an all-male production, an all-female production alongside it would be both equitable and artistically challenging and exciting.”
It’s an experience, actress Nina Damer, who plays Orlando in “As You Like It,” could not pass up.
“It seems such a waste that I should only be able to play the roles that are designated appropriate for my sex. I am more than my looks. I am more than my voice. I am more than my name,” she said. “There are no emotions or behaviors in the realm of the human experience that are reserved exclusively for men, so why should more than half of the experiences in Shakespeare’s repertoire be reserved for them?”
Julian Ortega, an English major at SCC, will portray Lady Capulet In “Romeo and Juliet.”
“This may help people understand that gender does not have to be so defined, he said. “We’re bringing attention to the fact that even though the character may be male or female, it can be played by someone else, as well or better.”
Nicholson and “As You Like It” director Lori Ann DeLappe-Grondin waited until they saw auditions before deciding which gender to assign to each play.
Actress Shelby Saumier, who plays Audrey in “As You Like It,” said it was a revelation to be able to audition for any role she wanted.
“For the first time in my life, my gender did not confine me in my art and I felt empowered and free as an artist,” Saumier said.
Zac Scovel, who plays Juliet this summer, said this experience has broadened his experience as an actor.
“It was always part of my process to put myself in the shoes of the character, but this one has been a challenge,” he said, “because I’ve never had the experience of being a 13-year old girl.”
Adding to the challenge is the desire of Scovel and the rest of the actors to play opposite gender roles in a respectful and realistic manner. “If we do our jobs right, they will see women on stage,” he said.
DeLappe-Grondin said she is thrilled to work with a stellar cast of hardworking, intelligent, funny and creative actresses, who often do not get many chances to shine in classical theatre due to the lack of female roles.
“This is their chance, and they are shining gloriously,” DeLappe-Grondin said. “We are working against caricature and for authenticity in all roles, not just the male roles. I’m inspired by the work they do and the spirit in which they do it. I think this will be a summer to remember, and hopefully not the last one of this nature.”
“Romeo and Juliet” runs July 3 through Aug. 1. The cast includes Sean Olivares as Romeo, Scovel as Juliet, Bill Gilbert as the Nurse, Tom Block as Tybalt, Ryan Canfield as Mercutio, Vernon Lewis as Frair Lawrence, Roderick Hickman as Benvolio, Sean O’Brien as Lord Capulet, Julian Ortega as Lady Capulet, Andrew Zelny as Paris, and Anthony Person as the Prince.
“As You Like It” runs July 10 through Aug. 2. The cast includes Dramer as Orlando, Tiffanie Mack as Rosalind, Denise Ivy as Duke Frederick, Natalie Jones as Touchstone, Christi Van Eyken as Celia, Emily Labowitch as Phebe, Shelby Saumier as Audrey, Theresa Vann-Stribling as Duke Senior, and Kathleen Poe as Jaques.
For dates, times and ticket information, visit www.sacramentoshakespeare.net. Performances are in the William A. Carroll Amphitheatre in William Land Park. Arrive early for best seats. Some concessions will be available, and picnics are welcome.