When friends, family and other playgoers gathered in Quirk Theatre Friday night, there was the anticipation of a great opening night in the air, a held breath and hope for an entertaining rendition of one of Shakespeare’s works.
By the time the curtain fell on the first evening show of the run, the audience was left with more than that: a discussion on gender relations, double standards and comedy in the #MeToo era. Just as Director Lee Stille, professor of theatre arts here at Eastern Michigan University, intended.
Stille and his cast made sure to keep the laughter and music in the production -- after all, it is a Shakespearean comedy. A classic storyline, the action can be summed up as “boy hates girl,” “girl hates boy” and their friends conspire to get them together despite their claimed hate. With a few more twists and turns -- a villain bent on bringing dishonor on a soon-to-be-wed couple, a boisterous group of watchmen and their bumbling leaders discovering the trick and a happy ending -- it’s a play many theatre companies have performed and audiences have enjoyed.
Eastern’s theatre troupe, though, flipped things on their head by switching and splitting roles as needed, thus changing gender dynamics and giving the audience an unexpected theatrical twist of a classic.
Under Stille, performer Kelsey Booth became Leonata instead of Leonato, the head of the play’s household. The role of Dogberry, the silly constable trying to seem smart, and his equally bumbling right hand man, Verges, is split and traded off between Megan Ann Liepa and Luke Veninga (Liepa performs as Dogberry on Friday and Sunday performances and Veninga takes the role on Thursday and Saturday performances).
With the bulk of the roles filled by gender-blind casting, Stille gave the stage to talented performers rather than playing it straight and casting mostly men. Most notably with the inspired gender-blind casting, the main roles of Beatrice and Benedick are played by Atam Bedikian and Liana Abela, respectively.
Bedikian and Abela are strong stage performers and have strong presences, which carries the play smoothly even after the initial surprise from the audience at the switched-gender casting. A man in a woman’s role and a woman in a man’s role without a change to the dialogue makes for a dynamite experience, especially when they suddenly switch roles -- and clothes -- before the audience’s eyes during a crucial speech in act two.
Bedikian and Abela saying together, “Oh, if I were a man!” as their castmates help them into new costumes and repeat earlier dialogue is a powerful sight that needs to be appreciated from the theatre seats.
These changes bring a deeper meaning to every movement and word on stage but Stille doesn’t weigh his audience down by making them think about the implications in the moment. It is possible -- and maybe encouraged -- to enjoy the play first and think about it later. That is easily balanced by the cast, with the opening night audience laughing hard and on cue, especially during Liepa’s performance of Dogberry.
The role of Dogberry is always a fun one to watch and Liepa definitely does not disappoint, bringing a larger than life presence to the part. An audience favorite, it was hard to watch anyone but Liepa, especially during the infamous, “Let it be known that I am an ass,” speech.
The staging of the play was also done well, with a simple Italian villa-esque set serving many and all purposes. It also let the costumes speak for themselves, as the 1950s house dresses and military uniforms modernized the play even further. The lighting, music and use of projections perfectly conveyed the mood. The projection of various artworks in the background helped the audience pick up on story cues and the music always complemented the onstage action.
With a strong cast, stand out performances and thoughtful commentary, EMU Theatre once again brings a performance worth seeing, possibly over and over again, to the stage. The light humor and beautiful setting rounds everything out and is a great experience for welcoming in spring.
The cast will be performing again this coming weekend, with evening performances starting at 7 p.m. on April 11, 12 and 13. Sunday’s afternoon performance will be at 2 p.m. and finish out the run.