I think all Shakespeare plays should be produced with the genders reversed. One of the best productions I’ve ever seen of The Taming of the Shrew was done that way, and its sheer existence vaporized centuries of criticism about the play being cruel and misogynistic.
The Ithaca Shakespeare Company, having entertained the town with its summer double bill, moves into their winter quarters at Fall Creek Studios takes the reversal a step further with an all-female production of Julius Caesar, running Nov. 6 through 9 and 13 through16. I spoke to the production’s director, Amina Omari, about the challenges of this particular version of Shakespeare’s history play. Omari came to Ithaca for college, studied and taught with the Actors Workshop of Ithaca, and directed productions of Spring Awakening and 35mm for Cornell Melodramatics.
Ithaca Times: How long has this been in the works?
Amina Omari: We’ve been working on this since the end of spring. It was Paige Anderson’s idea, she brought it to me and said, “I’d like you to direct this” and I said, “Yeah, this is awesome.” Julius Caesar is a super-masculine play; it’s a man’s world. There are very few female characters, and they pretty much exist to get smacked down. They exist to say, “Hey, there’s a problem with this, this may not be such a great idea.” And then somebody [says], “Hmmm, I’m going to ignore what you’re saying now.” It’s a really interesting play to rehearse in that way.
IT: What was it like, reading the script and seeing how the gender flip affected the story?
AO: All these little moments popped up. There’s these moments where characters are talking about how degenerate the Romans are, and they invariably talk about that in terms of the Romans being “woman-ish”, like “Our father spirits have died, and we are no longer real Romans.” So that stuff just pops out when you’re reading it with women in mind. There was a lot of talk at the beginning, we were trying to figure out, are we going to be playing this race of Amazon women who are running their own show, or is it women playing male characters? We decided on women taking on male characters.
IT: Scratching themselves?
AO: [laughing] If necessary.
IT: I’m just wondering how far you’re planning on pushing it.
AO: I asked the actors to take it from a character perspective as opposed to a “drag king” perspective. So they’re basically being asked to say [to themselves], “If you were suddenly invested with the upbringing and all the power and all the privileges, and all the expectations that this character had because of gender, how would that affect you? How would you carry yourself, as a person? We did fight choreography and a movement workshop with Holly Adams, and really explored movement and fighting. You can’t carry a sword and stand like a girl. [Laughs.] You just can’t do it. You cannot swing a sword.
IT: I must be interesting to think back to when women weren’t even allowed to perform this stuff.
AO: Yeah. Turnabout is fair play.
IT: I’m not as familiar with Julius Caesar. Aside from “Et tu, Brute?” are there famous lines or turns of phrase that we still use, as with Hamlet?
AO: Oh, yeah. “It’s Greek to me” comes from this. “The fault is not in our stars” comes from this. “Thank you, I am not stronger than my sex” is another one. That’s from one of the few women who’s challenging Brutus to be taken seriously. •