Role Reversals

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

In the year 2008, how important is race and gender? Two new revivals of classic plays both indicate a frustrating answer: absolutely and not so much.

On Broadway, one of the hottest tickets is a revival of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It was just re-staged four years ago, with Ashley Judd as the lead, but this production is getting better reviews (and doing better box office) with Anika Noni Rose (from the 2006 film Dreamgirls) as Maggie the Cat. Ms. Rose, like the rest of the cast, is African American.

To read Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning play makes it clear that the family at the center of Cat is very southern and very white; but the producer of this revival convinced the playwright's estate to allow them to make a few changes to the text in order to accommodate an all-black production. The one stipulation: that James Earl Jones play the role of Big Daddy.

Jones doesn't just play Big Daddy — the sun around which all the members of the Pollard family and their southern plantation revolve — he single-handedly makes the play relevant to an entirely new generation.

When John Goodman played Big Daddy three years ago at the Geffen Playhouse, his vivid, guttural performance did justice to Williams' character, but the play felt like a charming relic from America's past. What Jones does with his performance is remove the shackles of time and place from the play's themes. He showcases Big Daddy's feelings, flaws and fears as the natural makeup of any red-blooded American breadwinner.

The high point of the show is the Act II scene between Big Daddy and his son Brick — played by Oscar nominee, Terrence Howard, making his stage debut. In this scene, the skin color of the actors fades to the background and all you see is a father and son trying desperately to communicate. The rest of the production (directed by Debbie Allen) never matches this intensity. The all-black conceit rarely distracts; but it is only Jones who succeeds fully in making his character transcend race, as his Big Daddy is truly universal.

othello.jpg Here in Southern California, it's gender that's tweaked in a new production of Othello. The Los Angeles Women's Shakespeare Company is presenting the racially charged tragedy with an all-female cast. This is an interesting reversal of history, for in the Bard's day, women were not allowed on stage and thus all the parts were played by men.

As the Globe Theater of London proved during its visits to Los Angeles, gender really doesn't matter if the acting is strong enough. If a British actor can play an Illyrian Countess, why can't an American actress play a Venetian General? Indeed, Fran Bennett makes a credible and occasionally commanding Othello. Like most of the actresses in this production, she allows you get past the gender reversal and see the characters as Shakespeare wrote them.

wolpe-iago.jpg Unfortunately, most of these same actresses (including those playing the female roles) don't go beyond what's written and present a fully fleshed out character that comes alive on stage. The one performer who does achieve this is the Iago of Lisa Wolpe. Ms. Wolpe (who also directed the production) takes us past the words — and into the mind of one theater's great villains. Wolpe's Iago is neither man nor woman, just pure manipulation.

What this all-female production fails to do though is make use of its casting to allow us see Othello in a new light, despite the fact that it is a play about the distrust of women. With James Earl Jones, the race-specific casting allows us to see Tennessee Williams' 50 year-old play with new eyes; sadly, with Wolpe and her troupe, the only insight seems to be: "we can do this too."

The all-female production of Othello runs through Sunday at the Boston Court Theatre in Pasadena; the all-black Cat on a Hot Tin Roof continues on Broadway through June 22.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.