For all that I'm a theatre major, I hardly ever talk about my acting on this blog. But this project is so cool and fantastic and awesome and wicked that I just have to take a minute and tell you about it.
What if Iago was a woman?
For those of you who don't know, Iago is a villain in Shakespeare's tragedy Othello. He is considered one of the worst villains in all of Shakespeare. If there is a character that is pure evil, Iago is it.
Plot summary: Othello is a Moor, which in those days referred to someone from northern Africa. He, a black man, marries Desdemona, a white woman. Society freaks out, but they can't exactly do anything because he's the General of the Venetian navy and there's a war on. Desdemona, unable to stay with her angry father, goes with Othello to Cyprus, which is in rebellion. A storm sinks the enemy navy and our good guys arrive safely. Iago, though, is not happy. Because Othello passed him over for promotion (and assorted other reasons that all amount to "I just want to fuck shit up"), he decides to ruin Othello's life...by convincing him that Desdemona is having an affair.
Enter my friend's senior thesis project. Her project is about regendering the villains of Shakespeare. Regendering is a theatre term for changing a character's gender. Example: King Lear becomes Queen Lear and you change all the pronouns. Or Mercutio (Mercutia?) is played as a woman by a woman, and again, you change the pronouns that refer to her. The best regendering I ever saw was a production of Hamlet that turned Polonius into a woman.
It's different from cross-gender casting, in which someone plays a character not of their gender. Regendering actually changes the gender of the character. It's far more common to see a character regendered as female in productions of early modern plays, simply because there are so few parts for women but so many great actresses. Also, some people get really weird about cross-gender casting, to the point where they'd rather change a character's gender than see a girl pretending to be a boy or vice versa.
As you can imagine, this sometimes creates some interesting implications for the play. Like with Iago.
Making Iago a woman adds the glass ceiling factor and the "woman in the military" factor. Female Iago must use different tactics to achieve her goals, and is much freer to use sexual manipulation. When Iago complains bitterly about being passed over for some idiot who has no battle experience and doesn't deserve the promotion, it takes a whole 'nother connotation coming from a woman. Similarly, when Iago tells Othello about Cassio kissing him and humping his leg in his sleep, it sounds like an attempted rape. That speech will often get a laugh when played by a man. I sincerely doubt anyone will think it's funny if played by a woman.
I don't think this necessarily makes Iago more sympathetic, but it makes her different. Apparently people hardly ever regender the villains of Shakespeare. The three my friend chose to focus on were Iago, a villain; Shylock, an outsider/anti-hero; and Tybalt, an antagonist and aggressive, all-around jerk. Iago is by far the biggest project because he has the most scenes; Shylock and Tybalt have only a handful each.
Currently, I'm involved in the Iago project. I am playing...drumroll, please...Desdemona (because of course tiny blonde me is playing Desdemona) and Bianca, because that is a BRILLIANT bit of doubling. It's also rather ironic, because I always get cast as either the sweet ingenue or the raving sex fiend. Don't ask me why. I don't know. (I'm not sure I want to.)
This project is an acting challenge I've never had before. The first performance will be with a male Iago, the second with a female. I have to rehearse the same scenes twice, once with the man and once with the woman, and my reactions change between actors. Some of it it just responding to different actors -- but the "sex change" does affect the scene in huge ways.
For example, there's a scene where drunk Cassio is making fun of male Iago and making an ass of himself. When drunk Cassio makes fun of female Iago, he says, "This is my ancient, this is my right hand" -- and he raises his right hand...and slaps her ass. Everyone in the room: "Well that escalated quickly."
I was put in that scene in a silent role as Bianca (Cassio's prostitute), and as you might imagine, my reactions are very different for each Iago. Me for male Iago: "I am bored and I wish Cassio would get drunk enough so we can go have sex." Me for lady Iago: "BITCH THAT'S MY MAN."
It's a very dynamic process and I'm super excited to be a part of this project.