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The Man Who Came to Dinner 

Wednesday, Jul 14 1999
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To she, or not to she? That would seem to be this week's question.
It's always been widely known that back in Shakespeare's day, men played all the female roles. And thanks to a certain little Hollywood blockbuster, the masses recently got to see just what a hoot that might have been.

That's why, turnabout being the fairest play of all, I was pleased to accept a dinner invitation from Erin Merritt, artistic director of Woman's Will, the Bay Area's only all-female Shakespeare company.

Act 1, Scene 1:
Wracked upon a seacoast.
The evening began out at Ocean Beach, where I met Erin at the home of Woman's Will Managing Director Wendy Wilcox. Parking my car, I turned to take in a huge gulp of Pacific Ocean mist, thanked mighty Neptune for the free meal I was about to receive, and prayed that this night would not see my dear friend Kristi's lifelong dream come true: Barry in tights.

No boasting like a fool; This deed I'll do before the purpose cool.
-- Macbeth

Upstairs I found a beautiful, spacious apartment with expansive views of the ocean. As Wendy worked her magic in the kitchen, Erin poured us each a glass of white wine before leading me through a quick history of their young company. Woman's Will began last summer with its inaugural production, Two Gentlemen of Verona, under Erin's direction. This year the company will establish an annual tradition of bringing free, all-girl Shakespeare to Bay Area parks by mounting the politically themed tragedy Coriolanus, with Erin taking on the title role.

In addition to helping run Woman's Will (and cooking dinner for little ol' me) Wendy is also one of the members of this year's acting company.

"We formed for fun," explained Erin. "But also because there's all these great women out there that I wanted to work with. And usually each Shakespeare festival hires only two or three women per summer. Also, I had seen an all-male production of As You Like It a few years before in Germany, and loved it. Totally different things were funny. I mean, there are lines that are serious if a woman is playing a woman's character, but they're funny if a man is playing it. And I thought that might also be the case if a woman were playing the man's parts."

Act 1, Scene 2:
A feast to behold.
As Wendy set out her first course, salads of mixed field greens, watercress, mango, and onions, dressed with balsamic vinegar, we were joined by her roommate, Paul Lancor.

I asked Paul, an actor/radio personality/reporter-type, how he would like to be identified, joking that in the column there would be three dots after his name with room for only five or six words of explanation. "Paul Lancor, dot dot dot, who ..."

"... bothered to shower before joining us," completed Paul.

The rankest compound of villainous smell that ever offended nostril.
-- The Merry Wives of Windsor

Erin dutifully returned our conversation to the Bard.
"Last year, I felt like it was a lot easier to start out with a comedy. But this time I wanted to see if audiences would buy us in a really hypermasculine play. Coriolanus has a lot of battles in it. Women don't usually get to fight in shows, or when we do we're usually just getting beaten by somebody.

"So I wanted to create an opportunity for women who have stage combat training to use it, and an opportunity for women who don't have training to look into it, try it out, see if they like it."

Wendy reached behind her back to hand me one of the custom-made swords they'll be wielding in Coriolanus.

"We actually found a female fight choreographer," said Erin, "which was pretty hard. There's no culture of fighting for us, we don't grow up expecting to beat up our brothers. So there's really a kind of great thing that happens when women pick up swords for the first time. It's like, 'Oh!' and their eyes get big. We'll have pikes, maces, and rakes, too. Stuff like that."

"Plus, you get to kiss Lizzie this year, don't you?" asked Paul.
"Actually Lizzie kisses me," Erin corrected.
"Make your reservations now," joked Paul.

With that, Wendy served up large plates of broiled salmon, in a lemon dill wine sauce.

Master, I marvel how the fishes live in the sea. Why, as men do a-land: the great ones eat up the little ones.

-- Pericles

On the side were huge helpings of garlic mashed potatoes and string beans with those crunchy fried onions from the can.

As the dinner portion of the evening drew to a close, the conversation deteriorated -- as it so often does with these Man Who ... things -- this time into a series of butt jokes.

Over scoops of Ben & Jerry's Chunky Monkey and fresh strawberries, the group explained the rules of the Shakespearean actor's butt game. You simply pick out all the "but" phrases, and shift the emphasis from the second word to the first. For example, "but soft" becomes "butt-soft."

The trio listed some of their favorite conversions: "Butt-masters." "Butt-infirmity." "Butt-fool." "Call me butt-love."

"Did you say butt-pool?" I asked.
"No, butt-fool," corrected Erin.
Paul suggested renaming the garden in Golden Gate Park the Shakespeare Butt-Garden, and we decided to call it a meal.

I have supp'd full with horrors.
-- Macbeth

And, thusly, our Act 1 drew to a close. I thanked Wendy for the delicious meal and headed back to my car for a brief intermission.

Act 2, Scene 1:
Within a dark and dismal churchyard.
Our story picks up again at the corner of Sacramento and Van Ness, where Erin and Wendy had invited me to sit in on their evening's rehearsal. Inside the Old First Presbyterian Church the group had converted a large social hall into their makeshift rehearsal space.

Erin introduced me to the 10 or so women who would make up the cast of Coriolanus, as well as the show's director. This year Woman's Will managed to lure Mary Coleman, who spends the better part of her time as associate artistic director of the acclaimed Magic Theater, to head up the play's direction. I also recognized Lizzie Robinson-Calogero (a British transplant I've seen do brilliant work around the Bay Area) as one of the actors. Realizing this must be the Lizzie of the aforementioned kiss, I made a note to make my reservations now.

As Mary roused all the actors to their feet, I settled onto a nearby bench to watch the company run through their nightly warm-up.

Forming the group into a large circle, Mary led the players in a series of acting exercises: clapping, ducking, groaning, and "spazzing."

Once everyone was fully warmed, they picked up their rehearsal, staging some of the battle-related scenes. The actors galloped atop invisible steeds across the stage, waving their arms in a valiant clash of swords. As the women took on the predominantly male roles, it was particularly fun to watch them use their imaginations in place of the various sets, weapons, and props that would eventually make their way into the production.

"Barry can be a horse!" called out Erin.
Before anyone could get behind the idea, I quickly took my leave of the company.

Tis now the very witching time of night, When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out Contagion to this world.

-- Hamlet

After all, I believe it was Shakespeare who once said, "Get thee home, 'fore a flock of female actors drapes ye in tights, and mounts thee like the pathetic bag of bones thou art."

Didn't he?

By Barry Levine

Want to host The Man Who Came to Dinner? E-mail SFDinner@aol.com and tell us what's cookin'.

About The Author

Barry Levine

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