Exploring Gender Issues at Asolo Rep

Asolo Rep’s 2011-2012 season has given its audience a unique opportunity to explore the early evolution of the role of women in our society.  Currently, “Fanny Brice, America’s Funny Girl” is playing at the theater.  The show examines the life and career of the first lady of comedy in America, who succeeded in a male dominated field.  Go to http://www.asolorep.org/ for ticket information.

The season opened with one of my favorite shows of all of time, “My Fair Lady;” and the Asolo Rep’s production exceeded my expectations.  I saw the show as a very young girl, in a production starring Pam Dawber (from “Mork and Mindy”), as Eliza Doolittle.  At the time, I was a budding feminist.  I remember being bothered that even after Henry Higgins mistreated Eliza she fell in love with him and even brought him his slippers before the curtain fell.  At the time I vowed I would never bring my husband his slippers!

But, when I saw the play again as an adult with my husband, we both bristled at the tremendous emotional abuse Eliza suffered as Henry Higgins attempted to mold her (even as he was falling in love with her).  What I loved about this production was that it was clear that the actors took into account the dated material and played with it — creating a lovely flirtation that seemed to float above what were often vulgar words.  It certainly helped that the actors in the Asolo production were close in age and had excellent chemistry in sharp contrast to the elfin, young Audrey Hepburn (as Eliza) and Rex Harrison (as Henry) who had a 21-year age difference.

The Asolo Rep’s other musical production, “Yentl” also brought back strong memories of my early years as a young feminist.  The film, starring Barbara Streisand, premiered the year of my bat mitzvah year (a celebration of a Jewish girl’s thirteenth year).  At that time, I attended a synagogue that did not permit girls to have their bat mitzvah on a Saturday nor to read from the Jewish Bible, the Torah, as the thirteen-year-old boys did.  Instead, we were relegated to having a service filled with songs and prayers on a Sunday.  So, much like Yentl, who was not permitted to study Torah, I too was denied a certain rite of passage because of my gender.  I don’t think about this very frequently but attending “Yentl” brought it all back.  Yentl took a drastic step posing as a boy to be able to study Jewish law.  Although women today (in most places in the world) have opportunities to study everything that men do; to a certain extent, women often must wear a male mantle to be taken seriously professionally.  Women are told to lower the pitch of their voices or dress more modestly in the workplace.  Women are continuously confronted with a “good ole’ boys network” when they reach the highest echelons of their professions.  And, women must make decisions about balancing motherhood and career that men, no matter how involved they are as parents, rarely have to confront.  Here’s an article about the Asolo Rep’s production of “Yentl” by the show’s playwright, Leah Napolin, http://www.breaking-character.com/post/2012/05/22/A-Yentl-Whose-Tim…—Again-.aspx

I also saw “Fallen Angels” which was light Noel Coward fare about women’s relationships with one another and with the men in their lives.  It was stunning to see Hillary Clemens, who was a delightful and believable Yentl, take on the role of the flighty, adorable, flirtatious Jane, in performances that I saw a week apart.  In the show, Julia and Jane are best friends who both love the same man and each consider cuckolding their husbands with him while the men are on a golf outing.  The women, alongside their faithful servant Saunders, carry the entire production.  They are headstrong, vibrant, and full of life, yet they clearly are bored housewives lacking careers and past-times.  It’s a pleasure to watch a strong female friendship on stage; and it made me miss my pre-baby days hanging out in the “flats” of my friends with cocktails.  However, the ladies’ entire conversation hinged on discussing the whereabouts of the object of their affection. Flash forward to next year.

The Asolo Rep will address feminism head on in 2014, with its much anticipated production of “The Heidi Chronicles,” by Wendy Wasserstein, dealing with the changing role of women from the 1960-80s.  In a year when gender issues have been front and center in the news, it will be interesting to see where we are when “The Heidi Chronicles” premieres next January.

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