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March 30, 2011

A new kind of Shakespeare?

By jmleija

The very British, and very emphatic, Professor Carol Rutter of University of Warwick presided over Monday evening’s lecture festivities (“An Introduction to UK’s Propeller Company”) at UMMA. And I must be completely candid – my first thought was that I was definitely the youngest person in the room. In a crowd of 40 plus people, my 22 years old was a drastic change from a median age of 45. But it’s clear from the presentation that followed that UMS and indeed, Propeller, is a new rather than an old look at Shakespeare.

Looking at the presentation of photographs behind Rutter, I’m already entranced with the visual extremes to which Propeller seems to go. Blood splattered on the stage, half-masked faces, sparkling red heels on a devilishly smiling actor. An entire set in twenty small suitcases. I caught a few comments about the goal of Propellor as a company that “would build the set with people,” that had “the ability to travel light and tour anywhere.” But what stopped me entirely was Rutter’s statement about the type of theater I was about to see. She said it was playful, as I personally believe Shakespeare should always be. That it was demystifying, as I wish all Shakespeare lovers would believe it should be. And then she said that it was, “Frequently dangerous, always disruptive … and constantly provocative.”

And that, my dear friends, is just exactly what Shakespeare is.

Shakespeare is also the raucous run of an all-male stage – which Propeller embodies with the actors who call themselves ‘the Propeller boys’ and ‘The Pack’. Professor Rutter spoke about the somewhat controversial all-male make up of the company after which I asked a brief question about whether this persuasion seemed to alienate female theatergoers. The negative answer in itself was not as fascinating as her explanation: that men playing women allows the men to be brutal in ways they cannot be with female actors and that it frees a woman from being the paragon of theatrical beauty, talent, and grace, taking on the many abuses that Shakespearean women undergo. Perhaps the most staggering moment of this explanation was Professor Rutter’s insistence that the breaking of the fourth wall is pivotal in Propeller’s productions. Simply, that men playing women is not the biggest leap of imagination we all take when we go to the theater, and that if we trust the actors, their craft and skill and dedication, to entertain us, then we will be glad to see actors acting rather than imagining them to be the characters they portray.

Since the first question after the end of Professor Rutter’s presentation was about whether the company edits the original text or not, I can’t imagine everyone is excited to see the gritty, controversial, upcoming productions of Richard III and Comedy of Errors. But as an unconventional (read: young) lover of theater, the English language, and the incredible combination of the two in Shakespeare, I can unequivocally say that I am.



Jen Leija, in addition to being a fifth year senior at the University of Michigan, is a teacher, writer, and marathon runner. She won the Hopwood Underclassman award in essay writing in 2008 and has continued to write in essay, journal, and speech form ever since. Currently she is student-teaching ninth grade English at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor (hi guys!) while working as a Resident Advisor for housing. She also sings lead in the Pops Jazz Band and is active at St. Mary's Student Parish. As an artist and writer she has loved Shakespeare since the first raunchy lines of "Romeo and Juliet," and everything his work stands for: detail, dirt, and doing incredible things with language in every single line.