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'Bardbending: A Same-Sex Shakespeare Sampler' transcends binary gender roles 

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The plays of William Shakespeare have long been performed through the convention of gender-bending. Even beyond the fact that the female characters in Shakespeare’s day were all portrayed by men, multiple plays such as “Twelfth Night” and “The Merchant of Venice” have used characters disguised as a different gender as a central part of their plot.

But the WallByrd Theatre Company is taking it even further by looking at gender expression beyond the binary interpretation in “Bardbending: A Same-Sex Shakespeare Sampler” as part of the Rochester Fringe Festival, on Sept. 18 and 24 at School of the Arts’ Black Box Theatre.

Director Virginia Monte has been eager to explore the relationship between the original intention of the text and the way that can change if one or more characters are portrayed as a different gender, or not in a defined gender role at all. Whereas the previous productions of “Bardbending,” which began in 2018, have focused on the addition of combat, or on gender as a binary element, this year’s production takes things a step further.

In this production, Monte is examining scenes from plays such as “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Hamlet.” For the latter scene, one with Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that is typically portrayed by all male characters is now exploring how the context changes when the scene takes place between women and non-binary characters.

“What this has shown is that a female space can have more room in it than what we typically allow in,” Monte said. “We’re also kind of examining the toxic element of a female space.”

From exploring the differences between male and female aggression in “Measure for Measure” to what it means to be queer in a society that doesn’t accept that in an all-male interpretation of “Romeo and Juliet,” “Bardbending” is promising a wide range of interpretations on its stage.

Monte is asking the question of what happens when the characters in a given scene don’t all present themselves as the same gender, or when characters don’t present as a binary gender at all? Those changes have serious implications for not only the interpretation of their actions, but the scene itself and the dialogue taking place within it.

“The whole point of ‘Bardbending’ is to present something new, and WallByrd’s specialty is to present a classical form of theater in a very modern context,” cast member Jonthan Lowery said.

Kiefer Schenk, a fellow cast member who identifies as a demiguy (a person who identifies as both male and non-gendered) said that the focus on Shakespeare’s works beyond the binary view of gender expression is exciting.

“I’m going into this project presenting myself in ways that are more exciting and engaging for me,” Schenk said. “As somebody who has more recently come out with a queer identity, I’ve only had so many opportunities since to actually explore that in acting and performance.”

While Schenk has previously focused on comedy, elements of gender expression are never the joke, only part of the context for the scenes. “I would want to avoid that at all costs,” Schenk said.

Megan Barbour is an actor who has been with “Bardbending” since the inaugural production in September 2018. She approaches scenes from how a character views themself, but also from how they understand they are perceived by the wider world, something which “Bardbending” has allowed her to explore to greater depths.

“Those are two different aspects of gender that are really hard to reckon with,” Barbour said. “You have the very deeply personal, entirely internal, aspect of creating the person you want to be. But then also, the external, ‘Well how does everybody else think about me, and what do they expect of me?’ Separating those out as ideas gives you a more realistic and complex human to play,” Barbour said. “I think that Fringe itself is a wonderful creation, and that ‘Bardbending’ is a really well-conceived piece within it.”

Audiences will be able to see WallByrd Theatre Company’s “Bardbending: A Same Sex Shakespeare Sampler” at the Rochester Fringe Festival  on Saturday, Sept. 24 at 1:15 p.m. The production will be taking place inside the School of the Arts: Black Box Theatre at 45 Prince St. in Rochester.

This story is part of CITY's partnership with the students of S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications' Goldring Arts Journalism program at Syracuse University.
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