I’m sitting in a room with a group of Serious Actors. We’re about two weeks away from the opening night of this company’s inaugural production, and director Moritz von Stuelpnagel is observing his cast during a rehearsal break. “Huh,” he says. “My two female leads are wrestling.”
Other actors notice and egg them on. One guy hoots and whistles, and another air guitars to Me First and the Gimme Gimmes.
Then, suddenly, the match is over and the leading ladies stand up to dust themselves off. One of them looks to me. “That’s only us on break,” he says. “Now we’re off break. Serious time.”
Serious time begins and I’m surprised by how quickly and completely this group of hooting guys, some of whom are dressed in drag, becomes a group of Serious Actors.
This is a rehearsal for As You Like It, the first offering by New York’s first and only all-male Shakespeare company, poortom Productions.
poortom is the brainchild of Joe Plummer, the company’s founder and artistic director (he also plays the role of Celia). The idea sprang from a conversation Plummer had while in a production of Romeo and Juliet, when he discussed how the play might have played differently in its initial production, which was done, as all of Shakespeare’s plays were done, with men playing every role.
“This discussion was the catalyst that finally convinced me that Shakespeare's plays might be fundamentally different when played by an all-male cast,” he said. “As You Like It is the play that exploits the gender-bending potential more than any other. It was the logical place to start.”
In the play, Rosalind, who is masquerading as a man, falls in love with Orlando, and begins giving him lessons in love, so that he can woo the love of his life, who is her. For those keeping score at home, we have a man playing a woman who is pretending to be a man so that she can seduce a man who is in love with the woman she really is, though he still thinks she’s a man, which is of course what she really is in real life.
Now that that’s cleared up, consider, if you will, how this would play differently with both genders represented in the cast. Among other things, it would lose the extra edge added by the audience’s full knowing that it is two men acting against each other.
“Beyond the delightfully low-brow thrill of having a man playing the woman who’s dressed as a man playing a woman,” said director von Stuelpnagel, “I’ve started to see a certain fantasticality that emerges in the romance and poetry of the play, all by embracing the original absurdity in which Shakespeare originally conceived it.”
In other words, this is not a gimmick, but potentially the closest that a New York company has come to recreating what it would have been like to see an original Shakespearian production. Shakespeare, after all, was looking to entertain. He knew what his casts would be like, and wrote with this in mind. So banking on the entertainment value of drag jokes isn’t blasphemous, but instead, showing true respect by doing exactly what Shakespeare was doing in the first place.
This less-than-awestruck approach to the material is apparent in the cast, which is laid back during rehearsals. One guy wears pajama bottoms. There is a lot of “you girls look pretty in your dresses”-type teasing, and even more flashing with lifted skirts. Everyone laughs at their co-star’s performances, even after hearing the punch lines numerous times. That it is all male only increases the level of camaraderie.
“It’s a boys club, and it’s fun as all hell,” said Danny Deferrari, who plays Sylvius. “Acting in this show is like playing tackle football. Whenever you play with girls it's always two-hand touch. My filter doesn’t exist here. All we talk about are farts and WWF wrestling. Oh, and hot chicks.”
Yes, but then they go off break and Serious Time begins. When someone struggles with moving gracefully in his costume, a female crewmember is called in to demonstrate how to sit down in a skirt. He practices adjusting it before kneeling, and soon gets the hang of it. “I can’t even feel it when I stand anymore!” he says, with genuine delight.
Despite the relaxed atmosphere during rehearsals, there is a serious organization that holds the company together. As with all start-up troupes, and many established ones, poortom has a constant need for funds, so they recently held an event at Vosges Haut Chocolat to promote awareness. During the event, Plummer introduced his company and raffled off prizes while servers walked around with gourmet chocolate. (I didn’t think that bacon and chocolate could go well together, but man, bacon and chocolate go well together!)
The cast worked the room, deeply confident and proud of their work. “There’s been something wrong with every show I’ve ever been in,” said Erik Gratton, who plays Rosalind. “Not this time.”
The guests discussed Shakespeare and drank champagne and cheered maniacally every time the group was mentioned. “I’m jealous,” said attendee and actress Sarah Masse, “As You Like It was the first play I was ever in. I wish I were a guy.”
Though the cast was laid back throughout the night, it was just as obvious that they were a group of Serious Actors. “Imagine me in a dress,” was a phrase I heard more than once.
Natalie Markoff, who owns Vosges Haut Chocolat and is engaged to Plummer, said she was nonplussed by his dressing in drag for a living.
“What can you say?” she said, “Boys will be girls who will be boys who will be girls.”
The poortom production of As You Like It premieres on March 15 at the HERE Arts Center (145 6th Avenue). For tickets and information: www.here.org, 212-352-3101.