I’m back in my second-favorite state for a quick remount of Pigeon Creek Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. We initially did this production last fall, for a short run at the Sauk, in Jonesville, MI, and now we’re getting the band (mostly) back together for a couple performances at Muskegon Community College and in the Harris Building in Grand Rapids.

This production has been a long time coming; we were supposed to do it in the fall of 2020, and well, you know how that story goes. But I do believe that what is for us does not miss us, and things come around in their own time. We wouldn’t have had this exact team, and these exact performances, if we had gotten to do it when we thought we were going to. It would have been great, yes, but different.

One notable aspect of this production is that we cross-gender-cast most of the large roles. Cross-gender casting is not the same as re-gendering. In the latter case, the character’s gender is changed, usually to match the actor’s. What we did was to have people play characters where the character’s gender and the actor’s did not necessarily match. In Shakespeare theaters these days, having women play men is increasingly common and uncontroversial. Having men play women, however, is extremely rare, and it’s practically never not funny. Our production is kind of interesting because we have a man playing Isabel, and it is not a joke, at all, but we also have a man playing Mistress Overdone, and that performance is super campy.

Folks frequently ask me why I enjoy cross-gender casting so much. “What are you trying to say?” is usually how it’s phrased. Those of you who know my work well will understand that I’m not trying to say anything. I’m trying to explore in a new way. I’m also interested in creating opportunities for excellent female and nonbinary actors. Some of the greatest roles ever written have been off limits to women because of something so arbitrary. Okay, yes, that woman is not really a man. But she’s also not really a witch or a queen or a shepherdess. Theater is all about not really and about exploring the gap between the actor’s presentation and the character’s. One of the most memorable performances I’ve ever seen was when a very pregnant Miriam Donald Burrows was playing Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing at the American Shakespeare Center. They had a bit of the preshow where the cast explained that Miriam was pregnant, but Beatrice is definitely not. It was basically like, “You, audience, you’re smart enough to understand this, right?” And then sometimes they could make a joke about her pregnant belly, without breaking the story or making us wonder what extra-curricular activities Beatrice had been up to. In the same way, cross-gender casting allows us to play meta-theatrically in the space between the character and the actor.

In this Measure, one thing that cross-gendering has done for us is forced us to explore the actual source of power. Chaz Albright, who is playing Isabel, is much bigger than Katherine Mayberry, who is playing Angelo. There is no reasonable scenario where Katherine could physically overpower Chaz unless she was secretly a ninja (maybe she is, I haven’t asked). Because of this, we had to lean into the power of Angelo’s social position, passion, and (for lack of a better term) personality. It’s riveting to watch, because there is no question that Isabel is powerless in their interactions, particularly in the famous “Who will believe thee, Isabel?” moment. Watching it, I never wonder why Isabel doesn’t just push Angelo down, or shout back at him, or just run away. Seeing these bodies inhabit this social situation highlights for me how often women surrender our power because a situation favors a man in ways that feel insurmountable—and seeing that dramatized helps me think differently when I find myself in those situations in real life. Last night, a line leapt out at me: Lucio says to Isabel, “Assay the power you have!” Maybe this whole play comes down to women constantly having to negotiate our power, and maybe I see that differently because of the juxtaposition, the multilayered experience of seeing Isabel’s body layered on Chaz’s.

When we opened this show in Jonesville, which is in a pretty conservative community, I was a little nervous about how our gender bending would go over. I shouldn’t have worried. The audience at the Sauk was kind and supportive. After the show, a young man came up to me because he wanted to know more about our choices around gender. Measure was his first-ever Shakespeare play…what a one to start with! But I explained to him how we think about actors and characters, and how this kind of cross-gendering is uncommon, even for us, and he said, “I’m so glad you made that choice. He [Chaz] was incredible.” And he was! Is!

Another thing we’re doing that is maybe a little different from what I’ve seen is that we’re trying hard to play what the characters say they are doing and why. This sounds super basic, but I cannot tell you the number of productions I’ve seen that layer on a ton of concept to the point that the play becomes about that. It usually fixes the many, many issues in the text, makes the whole story cleaner and shinier. My least favorite take, which I’ve seen a few times, is where the production makes the Duke into a puppet master (I once saw a production where this was quite literal. Like… with marionettes). The way we read it, the Duke has heard about Mariana’s story, and also feels like things have gotten kind of out of hand in his dukedom, so he solves both of these problems by setting up Angelo. We think it’s significant that he decides to disguise himself as a friar. Kat Hermes, who is playing the Duke, has also played Friar Laurence from Romeo and Juliet. They pointed out early in the process that Shakespeare has a lot of friars who invent needlessly complex plans which then spiral out of control. It’s very clear to us that events in the play do not go according to the Duke/Friar’s master plan, almost immediately. He’s improvising constantly. There’s so much guesswork, so many moments when he forgets to act like a friar and starts ordering people around, so many times when he’s changing his mind and building the plane while he’s flying it. One question that comes up a lot is why the Duke lets Isabel think her brother is dead, although the Duke knows perfectly well that Claudio is alive. I think that by that point in the play, the Duke is making choices really fast, and not being terribly thoughtful about any of them.

I’ve also seen productions where Angelo is a villain straight up from the beginning. But when we were exploring the text, we noticed that Angelo’s language right after he meets Isabel is strikingly similar to any number of other “love at first sight” moments Shakespeare wrote. This story could have gone a whole different way, except that Angelo starts making bad choices and doubling down on them. Every time he’s alone with the audience, he says, “I should not have done that. Right?” and then he keeps making bad choices.

I’m lucky when I work at Pigeon Creek because the company’s training and culture is so textual. Every time I ask an actor why they made a particular choice, they point to the text. Maybe my read of the text is different from theirs, but we have the same source of truth. They have a strong understanding of how to use the specificity of the words Shakespeare gives us to drive their acting choices. They never bring in some idea that is entirely made-up and doesn’t have anything to do with the play itself. They trust the text deeply. They don’t ask me to patch it all up with an elaborate concept or flatten the characters to make them sensible. Working with these actors feels magical, because we’re drawing from the same well of infinite variety.

Frankly, I think it is so much more interesting to watch the Duke respond to the chaos he’s sparked, in the moment, as it spirals out of control, as opposed to letting him be a complex metaphor for God or King James and totally in control of this disaster. It’s far better entertainment to watch Angelo’s world rocked by his encounter with this powerful, beautiful woman and just be super bad at handling himself than to have him start out like, “What up, fam, I’m the villain.” Last night, we talked about how, if Isabel arrives at “Then Isabel live chaste, and brother die. / More than our brother is our chastity,” is a studied decision, then Isabel is an terrible person, but if it’s an impulse, a thoughtless first response, she becomes incredibly relatable.

When characters are just figuring things out moment to moment, making dumb choices, hurting each other, trying to repair, and, every now and then, showing truly incredible grace, that’s when theater holds the mirror up to nature. I’ve received feedback (both meant positively and … not) that the villains in my shows are a little too human. I think that makes them true.

SO if you’d like to get that mirror held up to your nature, as well as see some truly brilliant clowning and masterful text work, come to a performance! It’s… I mean, it’s a weird show, but we have a good time.

For those keeping score at home, Pigeon Creek is the professional company that has given me the most opportunity to direct. Without their encouragement and support, I might have given up the whole thing long ago. Here’s a rundown of our past work together:

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