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BK Theater Gender-Bends Shakespeare to Ignite a Feminist Revolution in New Work

Smith Street Stage's feminist rendition of "Measure For Measure" refocuses its lens onto the play's women.
Photo by Joey Shaw, courtesy of Smith Street

William Shakespeare's play "Measure For Measure" is about an Austrian judge who, when left in charge of Vienna, tries to exploit women while exercising his power to create an oppressive regime.

Thankfully, in the eleventh hour, the duke of Vienna returns to foil the judge's plans and restore order.

In the original script, the struggle for women’s autonomy is paramount to the story. However, because the three female characters in the story have significantly fewer lines, the men’s voices overshadow the women's shining moments of solidarity and resistance. 

Design by Joey Shaw, courtesy of Smith Street

But, thanks to a new, refreshed take on the story by  Smith Street Stage—a theater production company whose goal is to make classical theater more accessible to wider audiences– the 15th-century playwright is about to get with the times.

Under the co-direction of Raquel Chavez and Beth Ann Hopkins, “Measure for Measure” is retold in gripping detail through a feminist lens. The play will open on September 30,

To give the women characters in the play new gravity, the Brooklyn-based directors cut nearly one-third of the original script and delegated more lines to the female characters.

Through Chavez’s and Hopkins’ direction, blocking and general unearthing of the text, the play focuses more attention on the women characters and their strife. With this reimagining, the audience is able to see how much it really matters to each of the women in the story that their bodies are their own.

"When you gender-bend the casting, all of a sudden you realize there is really nothing more scary to the patriarchy than a woman on a mission," said actor Daniella Rabbani, who plays a gender-swapped version of the story's brothel bartender, Pompey.

Not only are the main female characters propelled toward center stage-- both literally and figuratively-- other characters such as The Duke’s chief of staff, Escalus, and Pompey, a bartender at the brothel, are gender swapped. 

In the original script, characters Mariana and Isabella plot a scheme to catch the malicious ruler in a compromising situation, thus negating his political authority. In the scene where this takes place, they are offstage while the duke monologues. But in the Smith Street production, the focus is on the two gutsy women who remain onstage. 

"Looking at Mariana and Isabella's relationship and being able to give a lot more space to an agreement that normally is within the course of a breath, we are getting to add so much more context and weight to that moment," said actor Aileen Wu, who plays Isabella. 

The reimagining of "Measure For Measure" is partially inspired by the recent overturning of Roe vs. Wade, the law constituting the right to abortion, said Chavez. 

"I, like so many of us, felt totally dismayed and quite disillusioned, again, by how these institutions are built," said Chavez of the Supreme Court decision.

Since the central tension of "Measure For Measure" is a conservative regime reinstating morality laws and stripping women of their bodily autonomy, the plot struck an eerie resemblance, Chavez said. 

"The reason why [women's bodily autonomy] is so politicized is because there is some power to be gained and that is what is happening in this play."

Photo by Joey Shaw, courtesy of Smith Street

While Chavez said it is essential to propel one's own political agenda through art, she isn't interested in preaching to an audience; she wants the audience to draw its own conclusions.

"I want the audience to just sit with the possibility of what it means to congregate in a theater space, and what that congregation might mean beyond these walls," Chavez said. 

"It's important to me to show a demonstration on stage, because I do think it is incredibly cathartic for people to witness demonstration as a means of fostering hope and perseverance."

""Measure for Measure" runs from September 30 - October 15, 2022 at The Mark O'Donnell Theater, located at 160 Schermerhorn Street in downtown Brooklyn. To purchase tickets, go  here.

Sam Small

About the Author: Sam Small

Sam Small is a freelance arts and culture reporter, podcast producer and fiction writer from Troy, Michigan.
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