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Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender

Lisa Wolpe interweaves Shakespearean speeches by male characters with often-sad personal anecdotes in this moving and engagingly performed solo show.

Lisa Wolpe in a scene from “Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender” (Photo credit: Steven Koeppe)

Lisa Wolpe in a scene from “Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender” (Photo credit: Steven Koeppe)

Darryl Reilly

Darryl Reilly, Critic

“Sometimes I feel like Shakespeare saved my life,” says the actress Lisa Wolpe near the beginning of her moving and engagingly performed solo show, Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender, which she conceived and wrote.  It’s a very well-paced hour of Shakespearean speeches by mostly male characters interwoven with simply stated often-sad personal anecdotes from her life.

Dressed in black slacks, a white shirt and a black vest, Ms. Wolpe demonstrates a fluid physicality and a soothing vocal expressiveness.  Wolpe quite adeptly offers rich characterizations of some of those most illustrious roles.  In addition she seamlessly switches to delivering revelatory reminiscences and concise analysis of the plays with élan that recalls Spalding Gray’s monologues.  The combination of these elements yields to a wonderful performance.

“Lots of tragedies, maneuvering from grief to acceptance has been the story of my life.  I look to Shakespeare to explore the theme.”

Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Anthony and Cleopatra, The Winter’s Tale, The Merchant of Venice, and Henry V are among the works that the show is drawn from.

The vivid set designed by Mia Torres adds immensely to the production.  It’s an atmospheric junkyard with a mound of debris, weathered car seats and objects on shelves including a skull.  This is all framed by a grim, gray and black painted cityscape in the background.

Ms. Torres’ set was designed for Macbeth3.  That is Ms. Wolpe’s three-actor adaptation of Macbeth that she appears in and that plays in repertory with Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender at the HERE Art Center in New York City.  The Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company in association with Parity Productions presents both shows.

Lisa Wolpe in a scene from “Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender” (Photo credit: Steven Koeppe)

Lisa Wolpe in a scene from “Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender” (Photo credit: Steven Koeppe)

Wolpe’s father Hans was a German-born Jew who moved with his family to France and later Belgium to escape Nazi oppression during the 1930’s.  During W.W. II he fought in the resistance while most of his immediate family perished.

He committed suicide when Wolpe was four years old.  Her mother remarried to an alcoholic ex-marine who was abusive and physically violent to Wolpe and her brother.  Her mother was stricken with multiple sclerosis and later died after setting herself afire after having fallen asleep while smoking a cigarette, when Wolpe was 14.  Her anti-Semitic Catholic maternal grandmother raised her.

The search for more information about her father leads to a poignant family reunion in Washington, D.C., at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

In 1993, Wolpe founded the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company (LAWSC).  There she became recognized for her “crossing gender” portrayals of the celebrated Shakespearean male roles.  From Shakespeare’s era when the roles in his plays were all performed by men and boys to the present when there have been notable all female productions, there has been a history of such casting.

Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender is in the tradition of Shakespearean solo shows by male performers and is also a unique addition to it.  That’s due to Lisa Wolpe’s accomplished acting combined with the strategically detailed pathos of her childhood experiences that never becomes cloying.  There is also the inspiring subtext of her triumph over adversity.

“So this story is for my Dad, who shuffled off his mortal coil, but lives in my heart, while his Ghost walks on to dissolve upward into Spirit,” Wolpe concludes before fittingly launching into Prospero’s “Our revels now are ended” speech from The Tempest.

Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender (through August 14, 2014)

Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company and Parity Productions

HERE Art Center, 145 6th Avenue, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.here.org

Running time: 60 minutes with no intermission

Darryl Reilly
About Darryl Reilly (333 Articles)
A native New Yorker, Darryl Reilly graduated from NYU with a BFA in Cinema Studies. For the Broadway League, (formerly The League of American Theatres and Producers) he developed, and for five years conducted their Broadway Open House Tours, which took visitors through The Theatre District and into several Broadway theaters. He contributed to Broadway Musicals Show by Show: Sixth Edition (Applause Books). Since 2013, he has reviewed theater, cabaret, and concerts for Theaterscene.net.

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