How do you make Shakespeare — easily the most produced playwright in the world, yet somehow still the one most likely to get slapped with a label of inaccessibility by neophyte audiences — fresh and relatable? How about giving Katherina, the fiery heroine of Taming of the Shrew, a pink motorcycle helmet and a Harley?
SENGA Classic Stage Company has tackled this challenge by bringing A Taste of Shakespeare to the Ojai Valley Grange just in time for Christmas. A sampler platter of the most enticing, charming and funniest scenes from six of Shakespeare’s comedies as performed by 14 actors, the show introduces the Bard to new and familiar audiences alike.
Director Francisca Beach first founded SENGA Women’s Theatre Company in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1997. The project was born of her frustration at seeing talented actresses compete for a handful of parts in a country where the great literary tradition has historically been driven by men. “When men write, they write with an understanding about other men,” Beach says. “I have a leaning toward letting women have a fair share of the parts.”
She created SENGA to help female writers workshop their plays to production — writers who, as women, were more likely to pen scripts with vibrant female characters. Even the name was meant to be inspirational: According to Beach, “Senga” is a Celtic goddess of fertility and wisdom. The first name was also popular among working-class Glasgow girls in the mid-20th century.
But when Beach moved to Ojai in 2007, she wanted to broaden SENGA’s reach. With her ability to teach voice and movement, Beach chose to focus on the classics, and expanded her casting to include men and children. The SENGA Classic Stage Company still produces Tales from the Women’s Locker Room, an annual festival showcasing short pieces by female playwrights.
This legacy of empowerment is apparent in A Taste of Shakespeare. Some of the playwright’s strongest female characters make appearances: headstrong Katherina (Lorrain McDonald), the cross-dressing Rosalind (Hanna Mitchell) from As You Like It, the conniving servant Maria (Maranda Mobley) from Twelfth Night, and mischievous pranksters Mistresses Page and Ford (McDonald and Jennifer Brown) of The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Even Prospero, The Tempest’s powerful magician, whose appearance bookends the evening, has been cast against gender, as Prospera (Brown). “It gives an unexpected shot of energy and nuance into that character,” says Brown. Perhaps never more than at the end of the production, when Prospera releases the sprite Ariel (Mitchell) from captivity. The moment carries distinctly maternal overtones, as though the sorceress were surrendering her child to the world.
Even the decision to have Prospera act as glue between the scenes, conjuring characters onstage, arose when Brown joked that the rest of the actors were only figments of Prospera’s dreams. She was shocked when Beach took her comment seriously and incorporated the idea into the final production, proving that SENGA’s commitment to collaborative development is alive and well.
Next on the docket? An edgy production of The Trojan Women by Euripides. Beach is on the lookout for an actress willing to shave her head to play Helen. Not a part written by a woman, but a nice juicy one all the same.
A Taste of Shakespeare, Nov. 25 to Dec. 11 at the Ojai Grange, 381 Cruzero St., Ojai, 646-4885. Tickets are $12. For more information, visit www.franciscabeach.com