At 19 years old, Lisa Wolpe fell in love with Shakespeare. She’s now performed more of Shakespeare’s male roles than any woman in history after founding Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company twenty years ago. She is currently touring the world with her solo show, Shakespeare & The Alchemy of Gender. Although it sounds like an academic lecture, it contains some of the best Shakespeare performances I have seen. The play pays homage to her father, telling the man’s story and how he affected her life. The man who killed himself when Wolpe was four is brought to life in a deceptively simple show that finds hope in a history of suicide, abuse and war.
Though to say the show is about her father’s life oversimplifies the content. Yes, a large portion is about him, but it also covers her life after he had gone, her relationship to specific Shakespeare characters, gender, performance, religion, Elizabethan society, family and alchemy – the transformation of a base material into something precious. These themes intertwine, with no moment unrelated or superfluous and the 55-minute show amazingly manages to not feel overloaded with messages. As she works through her life and her father’s, she relates Shakespeare’s characters to individual moments in time. As she reflects on her relationship with him now, she becomes Hamlet remembering his father’s ghost, in the best performance of the role I’ve encountered. Her father’s WWII escape and joining up with the Canadian forces as a double agent lead into Henry V. We also meet Richard III, Hermione, Shylock and others in relation to herself and her family’s history. Wolpe is not only adept as any man at embodying the male roles, she excels. She also effortlessly switches between men, women and herself, functioning in an androgynous state when addressing us out of character.
Wolpe is comfortable addressing us with an open honesty about difficult episodes in her life without coming across as confessional or masturbatory, as one-person shows run the risk of being when used to come to terms with the performer’s or writer’s issues, whatever they may be. The show is relaxed and conversational with the audience nodding, laughing, even verbally agreeing. The intimate venue helps, but she certainly has the energy to fill a huge theatre. She had a profound effect on the audience, particularly when sharing moments about her relationship with her family and dressing in boys’ clothes to defend herself against her predatory stepfather.
Her interpretation of the characters she performs seems rooted in physical and vocal distinctions, with her General American accent capturing the visceral-ness of the language that the more recently created RP/Standard English. These characters come from her gut, and she explains how she is able to relate to each one and perform them with truth. This is evidence of Shakespeare’s continuing relevance to modern life. Not only is Shakespeare: An Alchemy of Gender an excellent piece of solo theatre, it is also a lesson in performing the great Shakespearean roles of both genders and an encouragement for all to defy gender boundaries dictated by society.
Because this is a woman that must be experienced, here is an extract from her Iago. Enjoy.
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