The following is excerpted from www.theAustinist.com, in a review dated June 24, 2010 penned by Georgia Young. Read the full review here >

Sycorax and ClareWoe to the women of Shakespeare! It seems so many of them can be filed into two neat categories: fools who sacrifice their lives for love, and evil hags. However, contemporary theatermakers often take advantage of the playwright’s cadaverous status to reinterpret his work (and well they should).

Hence Sycorax, a new play by Susan Gayle Todd, of the Weird Sisters Women’s Theater Collective, which produced this production at a new performance space, the Gemini Playhouse. This play, a response to The Tempest, focuses on Sycorax, mother of Caliban. Opening with text taken from Shakespeare’s play, the audience gets a quick rundown of the situation: we meet Prospero, an exiled Italian duke and sorceror, living on an island with his teenage daughter, Miranda; a spirit, Ariel; and the beastly Caliban. Prospero subjugates all three—his offspring seems like a helpless flake, Ariel is constantly threatened by Prospero’s power (he freed Ariel from imprisonment by Sycorax in a tree), and Caliban is bossed around and reminded that his mother was a “foul witch.” There’s plenty to respond to here, and Todd has chosen to focus on the woman who receives only brief mention in Shakespeare’s text, but whose impact on Ariel and Caliban reverberate. We know little of Sycorax: she was apparently banished from Algiers for sorcery and dumped, pregnant, on this remote island.

That leaves plenty of room for interpretation, and Todd writes this woman as a black, lesbian healer, who—surprise surprise—is useful to those in power only until they get themselves in trouble and need somebody to blame. Todd follows the arc of Sycorax’s life, the rise of her reputation as a sort of shaman-doctor bringing her financial comfort and fame, her romantic partnership with a female assistant, and her run-ins with the sometimes embarrassing, sometimes vicious behavior of powerful men. The play hops between this progression and her voyage to the island, her punishment as a scapegoat for the vanities and waste of the governor of Algiers. Imprisoned, oddly, on the ship’s deck, sailors eye her warily, telling piggish jokes and sexist stories and urging one particularly wimpy looking deckhand to use her as he will.

Acting ability ranges widely—the all-female cast handles male roles with varying success, though the caricatured feel of many of the masculine roles doesn’t seem out of place, since Todd’s text has nothing nice to say about any of them. Azure Osborne-Lee’s sturdy, resolute Sycorax contrasts with Feliz Dia McDonald’s puckish, sharp-toothed Ariel, and Noelle Fitzsimmons, as Sycorax’s lover Clare, radiates a goofy sweetness that makes the relationship feel genuine….

The story itself is interesting, though the bawdy sailor talk sometimes drags, and there’s a female circumcision scene that somehow manages to be both yucky, inoffensive, and unclear (a peek at the program clarified what was going on). Todd writes a rich life for Sycorax, but there are a few confusing points. In her portrayal of Ariel and Sycorax’s relationship, Ariel appears to have lent magical power to Sycorax most of her life, jealously criticizing and sabotaging her relationships. The spirit, in spite of his apparent position of power, seems to profess that he is serving Sycorax—this falls in line with Shakespeare’s text, but leaves unanswered questions about how Sycorax is able to eventually trap him and how Prospero is able to control him later.

Another question that must be asked of this feminist response to The Tempest is why Todd doesn’t address the issue of Prospero’s daughter, Miranda. In her brief appearances in Sycorax, Miranda is still a dreamy, dopey teenager, in thrall to the only two men she has ever known—her father and Caliban. The play closes with an imagined scene between Caliban and Miranda, taking place before the time of The Tempest, an apparently mutually romantic moment, (perhaps meant to portray what Prospero implied was Caliban’s attempted rape of the girl). The scene ties up Todd’s story nicely, as Caliban tells the story of his mother and father, mirroring Sycorax’s own fantastical self-penned origin story earlier in the play. Todd mostly maintains a sharp focus on Sycorax, but this final scene leaves one wondering why the black, lesbian healer got a voice, while poor Miranda was left as tongue-tied as ever.

Todd and the Weird Sisters have created a rich slice of one woman’s world. Sycorax may not be a particularly direct critique of The Tempest, but it fills in a gap in one of Shakespeare’s universes, an interesting exercise for a Bard-focused theater group.

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Review of Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) published by Austin Live Theatre. August, 2009. Review written by Michael Meigs.

The Weird Sisters Theatre Collective’s Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet was a very Austin event. The Sisters performed Anne-Marie MacDonald’s broad feminist satire of Shakespeare and stuffy scholars in the backyard at the one and only Cathedral of Junk in South Austin, just a few blocks south of 290W/Ben White Boulevard. 

Closing night last Saturday was full, as a wide mix of folks filled up the very miscellaneous and inventive collection of chairs. Proprietor Vince Hannemann was rustling up seats right up till the opening, and he received a special ovation from the Sisters and the audience afterwards for his broad-spirited hosting.

The fun-loving feminist group was doing its fifth summer production. Their lengthy 2004 manifesto remains very much in effect. It begins, “WEIRD: We mean WEIRD in its original sense: wayward . We challenge the status quo, for we know that most theater drifts and defaults to old, hegemonic ways of interpreting, casting, directing, and producing.”

This is a loopy “what-if?” story about a woman academic, much neglected, misled and patronized by her thoughtlessly arrogant male supervisor.

Constance Ledbelly is struggling to write her thesis on Shakespeare. She has become intrigued by the fact that in neither Othello nor in Romeo and Juliet does a fool appear. If only a truth-teller like Touchstone or Feste or Lear’s fool had entered the stories,she reasons, these tales could have turned out not as trumped-up tragedies but as comedies. She assumes, then, originals by earlier authors, from which Shakespeare had erased the fool as an inconvenience . . . .

Leslie Guerrero as the prologue invited us to exercise our imaginations and to go with the ride, and quite a ride it was. After Connie’s puzzling over a mysterious scrap of undeciphered manuscript, a team of futuristic garbage workers erupts on the stage and appears to carry Connie off to the fields of her imaginings. The rest of Act I plays in Othello’s Cyprus just as Iago uses his handkerchief ploy to besmirch Desdemona’s honor. Act II moves to the streets of Verona just as Tybalt challenges Mercutio.

Connie ponders: why couldn’t someone just have told Othello what Iago was up to and thereby have saved everyone all the trouble? And since the quarreling in Verona occurs only because the lovers’ marriage is kept secret, why not blurt it out before the fighting starts? Once she has gotten oriented to her mindblowing transition into Shakespeare’s imaginings, Connie becomes the wise fool and does just those two things, with quite unexpected results.

Chris Humphrey plays wistful academic Constance Ledbelly with solemn sincerity. Initially downcast, she gives in to self-pity only for one brief moment, just before the garbage squad erupts onstage. The rest of the time she is mildly amazed, quizzical and engaged in the extravagant events. This is a droll turn and she’s very sympathetic throughout.

Vicki Yoder, the tallest of the group and the most robust in appearance, plays all of the swaggerers: clueless Professor Claude Night, Othello, and quarrelsome Tybalt. Lauren Schultz is her adversary as Iago and Romeo. They have a grand time with it all, and their acting styles are just two shades short of saloon melodrama.

The Desdemona story plays the smoothest. We find that Desdemona, played by Christa French, is more of a Diane or Amazon than a sheltered wifey. Desdemona welcomes Connie into warrior life in Cyprus as a trusted sage, quite overcoming our middle-aged academic. Iago keeps at his tricks but can’t discredit Connie.

Playwright MacDonald plays Connie’s bewildered ordinary speech against the surge of blank verse she invents for Shakespeare’s characters, and this technique raises the tone of these near-farcical doings to comedy pitch.

The second act does not rise to that level. Once Montagues and Capulets are reconciled, our Juliet (Noelle Fitzsimmons) quickly gets bored with the lack of romantic tension. There’s a truly dumb joke and pratfalls about a turtle separated from his shell, Romeo and Juliet quarrel, and Juliet falls instead for Connie the wise man. And then, after a revelation, for Connie the wise woman.

There’s some innocent bawdy, including the fencers’ parading of manly groin protectors. Eventually characters from both plays, deprived of their motives and cues for passion, gang up on poor Constance, who narrowly ‘scapes stifling.

She scolds them with a lesson that she has just learned for herself: life is not simple, it’s not about great passions, it’s messy and you just do the best you can.

Audience, players, and techs all had a fine time with these transformations. The players had conned their parts well and gloried in the saucy foolishness of it all. After all, what riper subjects are there for affectionate mockery than Shakespeare and academia?

For this 1988 work, her first, Canadian playwright Anne-Marie MacDonald received the Canadian Governor General’s Award, the Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award and the Canadian Author’s Association Award.

Twenty years later, we were privileged to get the Austin spin on it.

For example, at one point Connie learns that she will be assigned to the university at Lubbock. “Lubbock!! But it’s so flat and absolutist there! I’m a relativist!”

And so are most of us, here in Austin. That’s why we enjoy our theatre and entertainment with a twist and a twinkle.

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Originally posted in November 2008 at Austin Live Theatre:

Turnabout is fair play might be the theme for The Merry Wives of Windsor. Penurious, lascivious Sir John Falstaff is out for “cony catching” throughout the play but he just can’t learn his lesson. Falstaff (Courtney Brown) aims to trick and seduce the merry wives of the title: Mistress Margaret Page (Leslie Guerrero, left) and Mistress Alice Ford (Christa French, right).”

Page & FordHighly amused by his presumptions, the good ladies entice the lecher to assignations three times, and each time they set him up. Hiding in a clothes basket, Falstaff is carried offstage to be dumped into the muck; cowering before discovery by a maddened husband, he disguises himself and flees as a witchy old crone; and finally, in an apparently enchanted glade, Sir Jack is pinched and pursued by townspeople disguised as fairies.

In fact, you could imagine Turnabout is fair play would be a pretty good heraldic device for the Weird Sisters Women’s Theatre Collective. This is the fourth full-length presentation by a group of women whose manifesto celebrates “the company of powerful, adventurous, wise women, with whom we foster strong, deep relationships.” They use the collective to express themselves, free of gender oppression.

As in their earlier presentations, the Sisters assemble an all-female cast. After all, Shakespeare’s company was all male, wasn’t it? This casting strategy works perfectly well in theatrical space, where the audience is happily complicit in the willing suspension of disbelief.

This is not one of Shakespeare’s better comedies, but theatrical legend excuses that in part by asserting that he wrote it in a rush at the request of Queen Elizabeth I, who wanted to see the hugely comic Falstaff in a romantic comedy.

Falstaff here has none of the canny skills of his pickled, cajoling, irate persona in the Henry IV plays. Out in Windsor, he is a clown and slave to all his appetites, fit to be gull’d and mocked. Sir Jack is a bigger, bolder, caricature version of the merry wives’ own husbands (and by implication, a stand-in for all that’s gross about the male gender).

No wonder the cast takes such enthusiastic delight in the bawdy allusions to cocks, erections, horns and cuckoos.

Director Susan Todd sets the play in the fictional town of Windsor, Texas in the mid-1950’s. She and the collective must have had fun assembling the slide show of ads and snapshots from that time, which amuses us 21st century folk with the gender stereotypes from back then. Before the action begins, we hear Elvis, Patsy Cline, and contemporary recordings of ads and music from a radio station in Midland.

The costumes for female characters are a colorful, corny gala of middle class fashion of the time (love those Capri pants, Anne Page!).

Shakespeare’s language in broad Texas accents? It works! That makes it all the funnier. As the aged Justice Shallow, Chris Humphrey is a cantankerous Texas justice of the peace to the life. Loquacious and brassy in the person of Mistress Quickly, Hollie Baker is part Dolly Parton, part Goldie Hawn.

Courtney Brown is a hoot as Jack Falstaff, visiting star of a broken down rock band. Wrapped in Elvis pompadour and sideburns, she delivers her role with shameless assurance.

This troupe has good fun addressing the audience. Silly quarrels between silly prospective suitors to young Anne Page entertain us. The rivalries of the inept make them foils to Falstaff’s less scrupulous intentions of seduction.

Shakespeare was showcasing Falstaff, in a sort of Fat Jack III. But in this presentation, with the original text essentially intact, director Todd succeeds in focusing instead on the journey of Frank Ford, husband to one of the merry wives.

Ford’s counterpart Page (Penny Smith) is not at all discomfited when they learn of the curious, identical love letters Falstaff has sent to the ladies. But Ford (Vicki Yoder) torments himself with jealousy and uncertainty over the virtue of his wife.

So of course, he makes things worse. He insinuates himself into Falstaff’s company under the guise of “Master Brook” (Brook – Ford – get it?) and suborns the knight with a packet of cash to seduce Mistress Ford so as to make her available for conquest. Sir Jack is happy to take money for the job he’s already got underway.

Falstaff’s succeeding accounts and assurances drive Ford further around the bend, so that he grows more disturbed and more comic with each succeeding incident.But at the finale, with doubt resolved and virtue rewarded, Ford reveals that his alter ego “Brook” does, after all, have the prospect of sleeping with Mistress Ford.

Vicki Yoder is so impressive in the role of Ford/Brook that during the intermission I was wondering whether she might have been better cast as Falstaff, the lord of misrule. She has the presence, expression and physical stature to have handled that interpretation.

But then, this is the Weird Sisters Collective. It is appropriate that Sir Jack remain smooth and mostly unrepentant, because would-be seducers are always out there. The better choice was to invest an actor/actress of Yoder’s depth in a character who comes to redemption.

There is a lovely non-Shakespeare moment in the second half when Miss Anne Page (Johnson) is dancing in a darkened hall with her true beloved, Master Fenton (Martina Ohlhauser). She snuggles close, surprising the awkward Fenton, and kisses him. Then as they rotate in dreamland, that self-assured daughter reaches down and with one hand takes possession of his rump. Fade out. We know that there will be no one else in her future, once the plots get untangled.

Most of the other characters are silly quarrelers with impossibly funny accents or henchmen (henchpersons). But in passing, a couple of special tips of the hat: to Aména Moïnfar as the unsurprised servant to the French physician and to Brooks Louton as servant Peter Simple, stammeringly intimidated.

No curtain call for this cast! They exited from the dénouement straight out to the Vortex café, where they received friends and supporters streaming out from the theatre.

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