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The Escape Artists rethink Shakespeare's world

Theatre co. plays with gender roles in two productions

The Escape Artists present Miss Shakespeare and J. Caesar in repertory until May 18 at Performance Works on Granville Island (tickets at ticketstonight.ca) and May 21-29 at Kay Meek Centre in West Vancouver (tickets at kaymeekcentre.com). There will be a free Artist's Confidential session with Tracey Power on Thursday, May 14, 1:30 p.m. in the Welsh Hall at the West Vancouver Memorial Library.

Caroline Cave is no stranger to William Shakespeare. The North Vancouver actress has played Lady Macbeth in Macbeth and Rosalind in As You Like It (twice), but she never thought she'd get a chance to play the part she's taken on most recently.

This month, Cave steps into the psyche of the infamous conspirator Brutus in the world premiere of J. Caesar, an all-female adaptation of the Bard's political thriller Julius Caesar.

"I feel quite fortunate that I get to try my hand at it," Cave says, noting many of the male colleagues she most admires have played Brutus.

Adapted by Vancouver-based theatre company The Escape Artists, the production features a cast of seven women (Caroline Cave, Medina Han, Amanda Lisman, Pippa Mackie, Susinn McFarlen, Erin Moon and Tracey Power), upending the gender conventions surrounding theatre in Elizabethan times when all roles, including female roles, would have been played by men.

Shakespeare's text and iambic pentameter remain intact in this version, but the script has been cut back to a lean hour. "It's paired down to the basic elements of storytelling, the basic elements of the relationships between the characters," Cave explains.

And rather than being set in ancient Rome, this political power struggle takes place in the future - 2415 to be exact - in a post-apocalyptic world where women are in charge. J. Caesar is playing in repertory with Miss Shakespeare, a new musical written by The

Escape Artists' co-founder Tracey Power and featuring the same seven-woman cast and the same director, James MacDonald. The story imagines Shakespeare's youngest daughter, Judith, following in her father's footsteps and writing plays in the 1600s when women were banned from the stage.

"It's quite an inspiring story because it's a story of a woman who's innately and inherently an artist who's unable to express her art," says Cave, who plays Judith's older and more conformist sister Susanna. "(Judith) breaks convention and she gets a group of women together in secret to start rehearsing plays."

J. Caesar and Miss Shakespeare are tied together by their artistic crews and Shakespearean inspiration, but that's where the likeness ends.

"They're completely dissimilar in tone and feel and style," Cave says. Miss Shakespeare is billed as a "saucy" musical with a score influenced by underground European cabaret while J. Caesar, like its original source, is a psychological drama.

Since Shakespeare's day, the theatre world has advanced leaps and bounds on the gender equity front, but Cave says there is still a bias toward writing for the male story and that means less opportunity for female performers.

"I guess it's so inherently understood by myself and all my female colleagues there are just fewer roles for us that it's not even a topic of conversation anymore," she says.

"There are way fewer opportunities for really meaty, good roles - as we hear all of Hollywood discussing - there are way fewer opportunities for leading female roles.

It's still the white, middle-class male story that predominates."

The Escape Artists react to this reality with their new duo of plays, re-interpreting Shakespeare with female talent at the forefront. And Cave ensures viewers needn't be familiar with the Bard's canon to appreciate these gender-redefining performances.

"I think they're both very moving, emotionally engaging, visceral experiences," she says.

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