Wednesday, February 27, 2019

"Role Appropriate"

What if Othello was played by a white guy?

I don’ t mean a white guy in “Blackface.”  That’s over.

BLACKFACE” MAKEUP SPECIALIST:  “Just like that?  It’s ‘bad taste’, and I’m finished?”


Forget about “a white guy.”  Let’s be bold with this hypothetical.

What if Othello were played by a white woman?  That’s not so outlandish.  Glenda Jackson’s starring in King Lear.  Throw in “Race Reversal”, and you’re there.

Think about it.

Jersey Boys… with all girls.

A Man For All Seasons…  starring a woman.

I am hearing “Why not?”  Or, more completely, “Why not, you geriatric sexist moron?”

Maybe they‘re right.  I am habitually sluggish to change.  When I saw Hamilton, I was at first jarred by a black actor playing George Washington.  Not only did I know that George Washington, historically, was actually white.  But, to me, the show’s “Race Neutral” approach sacrificed the intrinsic “Status Disparity” between Washington and Hamilton.  (Who was also played by a black actor, though it would have been similarly challenging if the actor were white.)

I eventually got over that concern.  Not till somewhere in “Act Two”, but I got over it.

Forget “Racial Interpolation”, Hamilton’s casting was implying.  It’s just actors, playing their parts. 

Which brings me, perhaps belatedly – though it’s always a joy to learn more about me – to Eddie and Dave.

Eddie and Dave – written by Amy Staats, directed by Margot Bordelon – was the play we saw recently in New York when we believed we were seeing The Other Josh Cohen.  (Our tickets to the wrong play were also for the previous week.  But they let us in anyway.)

Hold on.  I’m going to research Eddie and Dave.

Okay, I’m back. 

Wikipedia and Google?

“The page for Eddie and Dave does not exist.”

Too bad, because I wanted to know something.

Wait.  First…

Eddie and Dave is a “bio-play” – I may have made that word up – about the rise and fall of the successful rock band Van Halen.  I don’t know anything about Van Halen – I stopped buying records during the “Cassettes Era.”  James Taylor, Carole King, Cat Stevens, Willie Nelson.  (Not unnoteworthily, they were all solo artists.  I liked the Beatles, but I, somehow crazily, never thought of them as a band.)

The question, “Why did you see a bio-play about Van Halen if you had no interest in Van Halen?” has already been answered.

We believed we were seeing The Other Josh Cohen. 

So there we were, watching Eddie and Dave.

Bringing this post “full circle”, the “conceptual uniqueness” of Eddie and Dave is that the roles of Eddie Van Halen, his brother – I looked it up – Alex, and David Lee Roth are all played by women.  Being flippingly consistent, the role of Eddie Van Halen’s wife, sitcom star Valerie Bertinelli, is played by a man.

What I wanted to know was, was that the show’s original intention, or did they hit on the “Gender Reversal” along the way, to make it stand out and more creatively interesting?

It was probably the former, though, lacking available corroboration, I cannot say so for sure.  It is kind of fun seeing female actresses portray three dopey men, symbolizing, as is believed in some circles, all men.  Roughhousing and posturing, the way we arrestedly developed guys do.  The thing is, the vacuous “Valerie Bertinelli” was no prizewinner either.

So in the end, the play just feels like a goof. 

Or possibly a stunt.

Or, synthesizingly, a goofy stunt.

My reaction to Eddie and Dave, which I casually enjoyed, was that it was an extended Saturday Night Live sketch.  Which stayed with me about as long as they do.  If that was the production’s intention – a “back-door” audition for Lorne Michaels – they did a pretty good job.

But that’s about it.

Who knows?  Maybe they were saying that sometimes “Gender Mishmash” carries an message and sometimes it doesn’t, and we should stop thinking about it already.  Which is a legitimate perspective.

Maybe if we were prepared to see Eddie and Dave

The thing is,

We were prepared to see The Other Josh Cohen.

I mean, they were gracious enough to give us seats when we showed up on the wrong week.

But somehow,

It just wasn’t enough.


Pidge said...

I took my students to the racially mixed production of “West Side Story” when this new approach to diversity casting began, about 15 years ago. Up here, in Canada, we seem to have a lot more variety than black/white, so, as soon as the musical began, it became immediately apparent to me that there was going to be some difficulty telling the difference between the ‘multi-cultral’ Sharks and the Jets. The costume designer chose not to distinguish either side with any particular visual black or white hats, gang-related accoutrements like red/blue bandannas, etc. When they mixed it up, they really mixed it up, completely obliterating the point of the story.
My students, many ‘new Canadians’, as we used to call them, were very confused, even though they were familiar with the plot. So was I.
All saying, there’s a novelty angle to a lot of this that can occasionally be counter-productive to the actual piece of work.
That said, it’s great to see so many talented people from all races and cultures getting a chance to perform.
Maybe we need some new stories.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

There was a certain amount of gender swapping going on in the 1970s, too. I remember seeing a woman - Judith Anderson, I think - play Hamlet back then. Glenda Jackson as Lear seems perfectly plausible to me - she's a fabulous actress, and has the voice for it (in range, not just that it's a little deeper than many women's). And there are lots of plays written for men that would work perfectly well with women in the lead roles - THE ODD COUPLE springs to mind, which I believe *has* been performed that way.

We are constantly asking non-white people to identify with white actors/roles. I thought Kumail Nanjiani had a good line when he pointed that out and suggested white people try identifying with actors/roles from other races. "It's not that hard," he said. "I've been doing it all my life."

JED said...

And then there is Peter Pan.