Woolly Mammoth’s recent production of Collective Rage: A Play in Five Boops made waves in the DC theatre community. In the play, as described by the company, “five different women named Betty collide at the intersection of anger, sex, and the ‘thea-tah.’ Award-winning playwright Jen Silverman’s absurdist romantic comedy is at once hysterical, inspired, and boldly uncompromising. When you’re done laughing, you’ll be ready to deliver a knockout blow to a thousand different well-worn tropes about female identity…and dare them all to say ‘Boop.’” This world premiere production was lauded by female critics in the blogosphere. But Peter Marks, arguably the most important DC theatre critic in terms of readership and effect on ticket sales, hated the piece, calling it on Twitter one of the worst plays he had seen in DC.

In a daring response, Woolly Mammoth sent out a marketing email highlighting the discrepancy, saying, “There are seven critics who consider Jen Silverman’s world premiere a form-breaking, revolutionary inquiry into gender identity and expression … On the other hand, there’s one critic who used his review to scold the play for using “dirty” words.” Marks heavily criticized the production, calling the conceit “at all times juvenile, and the sophomoric portraits of the five women … astonishingly patronizing.”

It can be dangerous for a theatre or an artist to take issue with a negative review; after all, critics are just doing their job, even when they don’t like a production. But Woolly Mammoth’s reputation and standing within the theatrical community allows them to take such risks. Indeed, it was this marketing ploy and the social media response to Marks’ review that led me to buy a ticket. I quite enjoyed the production and, judging from the laughter and applause, so did the many women around me in the audience.

Studies show that women make up over 70% of ticket buyers and 60% of audiences. We are the majority of the audience, and yet plays written specifically for a female audience are rare. They are so rare that watching a play about women and for women can feel like a revelation. Collective Rage was a play for women, and it seems remarkable that Marks completely neglected to consider that. The characters were all women; they talked about female body parts; the play dissected female stereotypes; the women existed beyond their relationships to men. As one commentator on the Post review astutely put it, “I find it fascinating that Mr. Marks couldn’t see this play for what it is: an indictment of the strictures society puts on women and how women adopt and sometimes embrace those strictures often to the detriment of their own happiness.”

I found myself thinking about these issues in reference to Brave Spirits’ recent production of Antony and Cleopatra. We received a somewhat mixed review in the Post from Marks’ colleague, Nelson Pressley. But it’s not his criticisms of the production that gives me pause; it’s the coded language used in the review and what that language says about gendered expectations in art. Pressley referred to our Cleopatra, played by Jessica Lefkow, as “unconventional” and the production in general as “non-sexy.” In contrast, female audience members characterized the production as “STEAMY,” “dangerous, creative, sexy, intimate,” and “bewitching.”

The point of this blog post is not, however, to take issue with any opinions expressed by Mr. Marks or Mr. Pressley, but to use these examples as a jumping off point into why more female representation and more female voices are needed, at every level of artistic engagement. That also involves parsing the word “unconventional” and digging into what that word suggests and what it reveals about our industry and our expectations of what female characters behave and look like.

As men are systemically hired as directors at a higher rate than women, Antony and Cleopatra is almost always directed by a man. The Shakespeare in Production edition of this play lists seventy productions in a select chronology from 1759 to 1995; only five of those productions had female directors. As a result, Cleopatra is almost always presented through the male gaze. The “male gaze” is a phrase coined by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey in 1975 and is used for analyzing the way stories and art depict women as solely objects for male pleasure.

Cleopatra’s sexuality is often staged as her primary feature, and her primary weapon, though the text does not necessarily support this interpretation. (For more information, see our production dramaturg’s blog post “Search for ‘Drunken Antony’ and the ‘Cleopatra…i’th’ Posture of a Whore” ). Indeed, the text often de-emphasizes Cleopatra’s status as a sex symbol. This comes through the mouth of Enobabus, the play’s truth-teller. When Agrippa crudely remarks, “She made great Caesar lay his sword to bed. / He ploughed her, and she cropped,” Enobarbus responds, “ I saw her once / Hop forty paces through the public street / And, having lost her breath, she spoke and panted, / That she did make defect perfection, / And, breathless, pour breath out.” Obviously these lines are open to actor interpretation, but arguably Enobabus is providing an alternative view of Cleopatra, a corrective to what Agrippa has heard about her. Enobarbus also tells us that Antony, upon meeting Cleopatra, “goes to the feast, / And, for his ordinary, pays his heart / for what his eyes eat only.” In other words, Antony falls in love with Cleopatra prior to any sexual or physical contact. Enobarbus tells us that Cleopatra’s appeal is about more than sex.

But no matter what the text may say, we bring with us ingrained expectations. I was reminded of this when a cast member posted on facebook a picture I had seen before, of a young Helen Mirren as Cleopatra in the 1966 production at the Old Vic.

Helen Mirren as Cleopatra in 1966

I think this picture shows Cleopatra as many of us picture her in our head – in low cut, form-fitting costume that reveals a lot of skin. Now, Brave Spirits doesn’t shy away from sex and skin (in fact, in our production three men appeared in the early Egypt scenes bare-chested). I’m also more than willing to admit that Helen Mirren looks incredible. But neither of those changes the fact that this picture epitomizes our industry’s habit of staging Cleopatra for the pleasure of men: her body is on display. This fact did not go unnoted by the (male) critics of the day. Milton Shuman went on about it in a horribly inappropriate manner: “As Cleopatra, Miss Helen Mirren was well equipped physically for the part with a voluptuous, sensuous figure that swayed with such conviction that rehearsals must have made considerable disciplinary demands upon the rest of the company. I can well imagine them being tempted to break out into storms of appreciative whistles.” Not only the character of Cleopatra, but also the actress herself is here reduced to a physical object for the appreciation of others.

Jessica Lefkow as Cleopatra
Photo by Claire Kimball.

In Brave Spirits Theatre’s production of Antony and Cleopatra, Jessica Lekfow’s performance and Melissa Huggins’ costume design were not about showing her skin. During rehearsal, we never specifically had a conversation about the “male gaze,” but our choices were all in line with each other. After the production closed I spoke with both Jessica and Melissa about these thoughts, and though we hadn’t used the phrase during rehearsal, they both knew exactly what I was talking about. Melissa said that while she hadn’t been specifically thinking about the male gaze, her design for Cleopatra’s costume had been inspired by Coco Chanel, who was a woman designing clothes for women. In fact, Chanel spoke out about the “illogical” design of New Look fashion created by men. Chanel’s aesthetic was known for its practicality and movement: her clothes allowed women to work, ride bicycles, and engage in physical activity. With the rise of Chanel’s fashion, the corseted female silhouette finally became passé.

Coco Chanel

In our production of Antony and Cleopatra, three women working together (as director, actor, and designer) to create this character gave audiences a new perspective on Cleopatra and presented new possibilities for who this dramatic character might be. Because a conventional Cleopatra is one whose appearance and behavior has been determined by men, our presentation of Cleopatra should be unconventional. The conventional Cleopatra is one of sexual objectification, but Cleopatra, and women everywhere, are more than their sexualities. Both Cleopatra and female audience members can find power in places other than our skin. This is why one of the keystones to Brave Spirits’ work is providing more opportunities to female artists, both onstage and off. We aim to increase women’s representation in the stories we tell and in the gatekeepers who control the ways those stories get told.

Charlene V. Smith, Artistic Director