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Few women can say "perchance" and make it sound like everyday English. Fewer still can walk into a chain restaurant on Niagara Falls Boulevard wearing a sweeping, fur-lined cloak - and look, somehow, perfectly natural. But Buffalo actress Nan Wade makes such feats seem easy. Wherever she goes, Wade - whose Shakespeare in Delaware Park roles include Beatrice in "As You Like It" and Isabella in "Measure for Measure" - appears constantly to be paying subtle tribute to Shakespeare.

It's a two-way street, though. And from now on, Shakespeare's going to be giving Wade a little more in return.

That's because Wade, who will be staging a reading of "Mrs. Shakespeare" at St. Mark's School on March 3 (see accompanying story), is one of the key figures in the Anne Hathaway Project, a troupe named for Shakespeare's wife and dedicated to allowing women to step into Shakespearean roles intended for men.

Wade is in charge of Anne Hathaway East. Anne Hathaway West is being spearheaded by Nan Doherty, the actress who came up with the idea. Doherty, a former director of Buffalo's Shakespeare in the Park, now lives in Portland, Ore., where she moved to lead the Tygres Heart Shakespeare Company.

Though still in their fledgling stage, Anne Hathaways East and West hope their two-pronged attack will make the nation realize that when everyone is dressed in tights and caps, gender doesn't matter all that much.

Men won't be barred from the troupe's productions. "It's not that men can't play," Doherty says, laughing. But they will have to compete with women for traditionally male roles - even biggies like Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth.

Such leveling of the playing field could be called long overdue. For centuries, the Bard hasn't been exactly an equal opportunity employer.

In Shakespeare's day, it was considered unseemly for women to act, so men played all the roles.

The result, says Shakespeare in Delaware Park founder Saul Elkin, was a shortage of substantial parts for women. Take "Romeo and Juliet," to be performed this summer. Out of maybe 20 roles, few are female: There's Juliet, the nurse, the tiny parts of Lady Capulet and Lady Montague and . . . and . . .

A delicate irony, Elkin points out, surfaced in "Shakespeare in Love," which had an Elizabethan woman named Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow) stepping into the role of Romeo. "There was a boy playing Juliet, and a woman was playing Romeo," Elkin laughs. "One of the things Shakespeare did in his plays was he frequently had a boy playing a woman playing a man. The script for "Shakespeare in Love' took off on that."

Elkin explains that in creating few female roles, the Bard was simply making the best use of his resources.

"Shakespeare, clever guy that he was, realized that he had men playing women, and he sort of soft-pedaled that," he explains. "The result is women have been systematically kept out of Shakespeare unless they're playing leading roles."

Babes With Blades

That isn't to say that nobody has ever crashed the party. "Women have been performing men's roles in Shakespeare for generations," says Wade.

She points to Sarah Siddons, who played Hamlet in the 1700s. And Charlotte Cushman, who in the mid-1800s tackled not only Hamlet, but King Lear and Shylock (from "The Merchant of Venice") as well. Recent times have seen organized efforts: The Los Angeles Women Shakespeare Company has been staging all-female Shakespeare plays for 10 years.

Still, it appears that these days, Shakespearean gender-bending is gathering steam.

In Chicago, a troupe called Babes With Blades choreographs Elizabethan sword fights and performs Shakespearean scenes. Doherty reports that Bombshell Productions in New York recently cast Hamlet as a woman, and New York's Judith Shakespeare Company was just awarded a big grant.

Years ago, in San Francisco, Doherty herself played Mercutio, Romeo's best friend. Taking a creative approach, she recast Mercutio as a female part. "It was great, and it was interesting, because we played her as a sort of tomgirl who was in love with Romeo," she says.

Doherty is currently working on a "King Lear" in which Lear's insightful jester, the Fool, is a woman. Asked which male roles she would like to take on herself, she mentions Hotspur, the wild man from "Henry IV." Or, optimally, the title role in "Macbeth." "People laugh at me because I say it's a love story," she says.

A love story? Nobody in the play, Doherty points out with typically female optimism, commits a grisly crime for his own sake. "It's always for the other person."

Wade, for her part, yearns to play Iago, in "Othello." "He's such a wonderful villain," she says.

In her hometown of Chicago, she once saw Christopher Plummer playing Iago, and loved his approach. "He played him very effeminately, but it worked," she recalls. She reflects, "There are feminine sides to a lot of Shakespeare's characters."

Big roles, big dreams

Wade earned her master's degree at Illinois State University, John Malkovich's alma mater. As a graduate student, she appeared on stage with Malkovich in "The Man Who Came To Dinner." "He was wonderful," she says.

Her theater commitment was further cemented by James Earl Jones, who was in Chicago playing Othello to Plummer's Iago.

"I was working as a temporary secretary at ABC, and I had seen him in "Great White Hope,' " Wade recalls. When Jones came in to do an interview at ABC, she cornered him. "We ended up being very good friends," she says. "He has been a great influence in my life."

Wade says that Jones, who conquered a stammer to develop his trademark distinguished voice, taught her a lot about perseverance. His inspiration helped her keep going as, for more than 10 years, she crossed the country appearing in various productions.

She was on the road from 27 until 35. By then, she says, "I really was feeling pretty lonely. I'd just been a bachelorette my whole life. I missed being able to share successes and defeats with someone."

Fate stepped in when, in Florida, Wade began dating a man from Dunkirk. Relocating to Western New York to be with him, she wound up meeting another Buffalonian, Kevin Craig. She married him 11 years ago, when she was 39.

When she discusses her husband, a groundskeeper and landscaper, Wade's eyes shine. "He's good with me. He's good with all my stuff," she says. I don't think I could have married an actor."

Not surprisingly, Wade wasted no time instilling in her husband an interest in Shakespeare. She beams that, when she played Beatrice in "As You Like It," he came to Delaware Park to see her. "He liked it!" she marvels, as thrilled as a schoolgirl. "And he's a guy! He's a guy and he likes guy things."

Wade has lived in Western New York for over a decade now. She loves her job as a legal secretary at Phillips, Lytle. And she has big theater dreams.

She envisions the Anne Hathaway Project growing into a professional acting school, occupying a venue and enabling actors to earn their Actors Equity cards. Wade, who invites interested thespians to call the Anne Hathaway Project at 835-3151, plans to focus not only on Shakespeare but on all kinds of works through the 1920s. "Moliere, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, Brecht - there are wonderful pieces of theater we can build on," she says.

To that end, she hopes to see more funding for the arts.

"I don't see any big difference between the women of this city and the women of New York, Chicago and L.A.," Wade declares. "The only thing I see a difference of is money."

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