One-sex productions of Shakespeare expand

"Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare," a Shakespeare's Globe

"Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare," a Shakespeare's Globe Production directed by Tim Carroll. With Mark Rylance as Olivia, Stephen Fry as Malvolio. (Credit: Geraint Lewis)

This can sound retro, if not just a bit silly, like separate playgrounds for the girls and the boys.

But in the coming weeks, New York theatergoers will be introduced to major productions of single-gender Shakespeare. Of course, the "trend" began more than four centuries ago in Elizabethan London, at least for the guys. Lately, however, all-women Shakespeare is enjoying what appears to be a healthy, tumultuous turnabout.

As everyone knows who at least saw "Shakespeare in Love," women were banned from performing on the wicked stage during his time, which means that men and boys played all the roles he ever wrote. When actor Mark Rylance became the first artistic director of the remarkable, re-created Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in 1995, he helped spearhead a return to the original practice.

Rylance, who won Tonys for his wildly contrasting star turns in "Boeing, Boeing" in 2008 and "Jerusalem" in 2011, is the box-office lure for the celebrated all-male "Richard III" and "Twelfth Night," which begin previews Oct. 15 at the Belasco Theatre and open, in repertory, Nov. 10. Rylance plays another couple of contrasting characters -- the humpbacked king in one and the noble Olivia in the other. But the Globe productions, which approximate original Elizabethan fabrics, weaponry and limited lighting, promise far more than a star turn.

"We pick and choose from the original stage practices," says director Tim Carroll, who was Rylance's associate director through much of his administration, which ended in 2005. "People don't urinate in the yard anymore," as they freely did in Shakespeare's day, "and we don't cram 3,000 people into the space," he joked with me on a phone interview from London. "But the all-male casting was one of the most interesting revelations."

Not just the Globe but Edward Hall's Propeller theater (a frequent visitor to Brooklyn Academy of Music) and a company called The Lord Chamberlain's Men also picked up on the interesting revelations in male Shakespeare.

Less exciting, naturally, has been the employment fallout for British actresses. Shakespeare didn't write nearly as many good roles for women as for men and, more and more, the women were shut out of the ones they count on.

So look away from Broadway to Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse, momentarily, for the all-female production of "Julius Caesar." In previews now for Wednesday's opening is a much-acclaimed staging by Phyllida Lloyd, who has her place in Broadway history as the director of "Mamma Mia!" and a place in my heart forever for the 2009 Broadway revival of "Mary Stuart." Harriet Walter, so shivering and majestic as Elizabeth I, is now Brutus.

"Harriet isn't Brutus," Lloyd tells me in a phone call from London. "But somehow, when she is in front of us, she has the full humanity of Brutus. We stop thinking, 'Well, that man is a woman,' and realize how many women in the company have used just a tiny percentage of their arsenal onstage. Roles for women, with some exceptions, are fundamentally domestic and romantic."

This "Julius Caesar," set in a women's prison, started life when, in 2012, Josie Rourke became the first high-profile woman to be named artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse. "I wanted to celebrate the first time that a woman got the reins of what we would call a 'big hitter' in London theater," said Lloyd, "something that would make the women in the audience feel included.

"I started thinking that at least 50 percent of the roles would go to women," she said, clearly enjoying the memory. "Then I thought, 'To hell with that! Let's go the whole way.' It's not just about employment in the theater. It's about hearing women's voices at the center of things, literally giving them roles to play in life and art."

But this is more than a he-said/she-said debate. Both Lloyd and Carroll told me about the deep impact of single-gender Shakespeare. Lloyd said, "Somehow the themes of the play are thrown into stark relief when the right genders are not in the right roles. Sometimes, curiously, it makes patterns easier to see -- in this play ["Julius Caesar"], the themes of justice and freedom and tyranny."

Obviously, Carroll, with the force of theater history behind him, doesn't need to justify the all-male productions. But he said he feels strongly that the single-sex stagings "create a highly imaginative theatrical world. From the start, this is a very high level of make-believe. There is something spiritually right in Shakespeare telling audiences to imagine the layers of sexual complexity in 'Twelfth Night' . . . A female character played by a male, who spends most of the play pretending to be a boy. It's a sexual twist I'm sure Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote it."

I asked about the suspension of disbelief. Are we supposed to believe the men as women -- or the women as men? "I don't think the audience ever suspends disbelief in Shakespeare," he answered provocatively. "I don't think we're ever meant to forget we're watching a play in a theater. The audience is meant to enjoy the game."

And yet . . . in England, women actors have been so unamused by the paucity of roles -- not just in Shakespeare -- that, last year, Equity, the actors' union, asked Arts Council England, the national development agency for the arts, to monitor the imbalance of roles for men and women in subsidized theater. The union also called for action on gender stereotypes in theater and on TV, arguing that women are often relegated to "caring responsibilities, attractiveness or on perceptions of women as sex objects or victims."

Clearly, the all-male trend in England has sparked a backlash. Right now, the Globe has an all-female "Taming of the Shrew" in Singapore. And, lest we think women here have not noticed, two Off-Broadway companies -- Cake Productions and the New Ateh Theater Group -- are staging an all-woman production of Moliere's "The Learned Ladies" at Off-Broadway's Abingdon Theatre, through Oct. 19. Director Paul Urcioli said in a news release that Moliere's misogyny in the play is refocused with an all-female cast. It seems retro, if not a bit silly, to point out that the director is a man, so I won't.