In Shakespeare's day, a certain kind of gender-bending was inevitable in the theater. With women banned from acting on the English stage, the Bard had to write female roles for young male actors.
Audiences apparently adjusted, even when the comedy "As You Like It" was first performed around 1600. In that work, a boy played the female character of Rosalind, who disguises herself as a boy, who, in some scenes, pretends to be Rosalind.
When Center Stage unveils its production of "As You Like It" in its temporary home at Towson University this weekend, Rosalind will be portrayed by a woman, as is now usual. But she will have lots more female company onstage — nothing but female company, in fact.
"You cannot deny good acting and good storytelling, whether it's an all-female or all-male cast," says Sofia Jean Gomez, who plays the gentleman Orlando, in love with Rosalind. "We're a group of really fabulous women doing a Shakespeare show. It's no different from what an all-male cast would do, except we might be a little bit better. I may even be a sexier Orlando than you've ever seen."
All-female productions of Shakespeare seem to be proliferating.
In the Baltimore area, Shakespeare Factory offered an all-female "Henry IV, Part One" last summer. This spring, the theater company at Emory University in Atlanta will present "As You Like It" with two casts — one all-female, one all-male.
In London, there's a troupe called Smooth Faced Gentlemen, established by women specifically to stage the playwright's works. And Shakespeare's Globe, the reconstructed Elizabethan theater in London, has offered an all-female "The Taming of the Shrew" directed by Phyllida Lloyd.
"When we started rehearsals" Gomez says, "our director, Wendy Goldberg, quoted Phyllida Lloyd saying that this is like playing 'a very familiar score with new instruments.'"
For Center Stage, the decision to give "As You Like It" new "instruments" came easily.
"Shakespeare is at his most gender-bending here," says the company's associate artistic director, Gavin Witt, who did the adaptation of the play.
"We wanted to expand and explode the issue. It's OK to cast Shakespeare without regard to age or ethnicity, so why not gender? It's not just about putting women into male roles or disguises. There are a number of characters in this play who are exploring who and what they are. [An all-female production] is both meaningful and delicious."
The convoluted plot of "As You Like It" involves various pairs of would-be lovers, along with assorted threats and roadblocks to the romance. There's plenty of subtext and suggestiveness along the way, which gives any approach to casting potential freshness.
"Women playing opposite women is something very beautiful to navigate," says Jenna Rossman, cast as one of the (originally) female roles, Phebe, who falls in love with the "boy" impersonated by Rosalind.
Shakespeare's language cannot help by get a new twist in an all-female production. One of the writer's most famous speeches is in "As You Like It," the one known as "The Seven Ages of Man," beginning with the lines: "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."
"When actors auditioned for us and recited the 'Seven Ages of Man,' they would say, 'I never thought I would tackle this speech.' There was something very profound about that," Witt says.
Seeing women delivering lines long owned by men is "so beautiful to watch," Gomez says.
"As more companies decide to try all-female casts, obviously, it will always go fabulously," she adds with a laugh. "It's like looking at a new play. You are not going to see stereotypes of males. That would be reverse sexism. There are just going to be different valleys and peaks."
Given the widespread interest today in addressing gender parity in theater, not to mention the heightened awareness of gender issues in general, "This [production] couldn't have come at a more perfect time," Rossman says.