When the lady is a king
David N. Dunkle of Patriot-News
October 23, 2005
The man who would be king must walk the walk, and that was a bit of a problem for Amber Wagner, a definite female.
"You don't feel like you are walking like a girl until you try walking like a man," said Wagner, who will play the role of Prince Hal in Harrisburg Shakespeare Festival's upcoming production of "Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2."
Melissa Dunphy, who will play Hal's sworn enemy, Hotspur, in the production, agreed.
"It's so different," Dunphy said. "You have to think yourself into a man's body. Since I'm five foot three and don't look anything like a man, it's hard to think myself into having broad shoulders and thinner hips."
Wagner and Dunphy are not the only cast members with gender issues.
Director J. Clark Nicholson has cast women in all of the major male roles and men in two of the major female roles.
"There are some wonderful female roles in Shakespeare -- Lady Macbeth, Juliet -- but generally per play there are only one or two," Nicholson said. "I got tired of constantly having to turn away these great actresses because there were so few roles. I thought it would be interesting to cast all of these talented women into the male roles and see what happens."
There's a certain poetic justice to the decision, because during the Elizabethan era when Shakespeare was writing his plays, women were not allowed to act on stage.
"It was really against the law," Nicholson said.
So men played both male and female roles.
That tradition will be both revisited and revised in this production, which is a condensed version of two Shakespeare plays about Prince Hal's evolution into King Henry V.
Hence, Robert Campbell portrays Mistress Quickly, hostess of the tavern where Prince Hal, a royal black sheep in "Part 1," cavorts with his commoner friends, most notably the unsavory Jack Falstaff.
Campbell also mentions the walk.
"It's a matter of shifting my physicality, trying to hold my hips in a certain way" he explained. "The main difference between the way men and women walk is in the way they move their hips."
Both sides of the equation have enjoyed watching the other wrestle with gender during rehearsals.
"That is hilarious," Wagner conceded. "With Robert, everything about him changes. Event the cadence of his words starts sounding more and more like a song."
For her part, Wagner said, "I do find myself behaving a little more manishly for a while after rehearsal."
But switching sexes is about more than how much you swing your hips. There are those tricky emotions -- not to mention the sword fights, coifs and distinct physical differences.
Campbell, who will solve that last problem by having breasts sewn into his costume, said his character operates from a different emotional palette than he does.
"She is a more emotional creature," he said. "She will go from being very angry with Falstaff one minute to being very charmed by him the next. There is a softness there that is feminine. I don't think it's only female, but that is interesting to get to explore."
Wagner said she's gotten a better understanding of men's emotional makeup.
"Once I feel an emotion, it tends to be right out there, on my sleeve," said Wagner. "Men try keep their emotions under wraps as long as possible. [Now] I can understand a little better why they are afraid to let everyone see their emotion. There is so much of a power struggle going on all the time. If you show any weakness, the next person is going to come along and take your position away from you."
In the case of Prince Hal, that person is Hotspur, an angry young man who challenges Hal's right to the throne.
That rivalry will lead to a battle of armies -- and a more personal duel.
Break out the broadswords, ladies.
"I have a great big sword fight with Prince Hal," Dunphy said. "That's been a lot of fun, but it's a real sword. It's pretty heavy. You swing that thing for a few minutes, and you are sweating, your muscles are aching, and you are puffing for breath."
Added Wagner, who has two sword fights, "It takes it out of you, that's for sure. But we are getting it."
Several of the actresses got their hair cut to better look their parts.
"I look like my 9-year-old daughter," said a laughing Melissa Nicholson, who cut about five inches of hair off for her portrayal of the aging Henry IV. "It's kind of a page boy."
Clark Nicholson, Melissa's husband, thinks the experiment will yield interesting results.
"'Henry' is about what's like to mature as a male," he said. "I thought it would be interesting for these actresses to look at life from the male viewpoint, to see what boys go through when they confront their fathers and decide how much they want to be like them, or not like them."