You play the theatre critic, for a moment. When is it noteworthy when a female actor takes on a role originally written for a male actor?
I've been pondering this question as Tarragon Theatre's fantastic present-day production of An Enemy of the People is now back on stage in Toronto – with a, perhaps, notable casting change at its centre.
Dr. Stockmann, the main character in this update of Henrik Ibsen's 1882 drama, was played by Joe Cobden last season. For the current remount, however, Laura Condlln has stepped into the part of Stockmann – a researcher who discovers that the city baths, the main source of economic activity in her small town, are environmentally contaminated.
It is rare that a female actor replaces a male actor in a production – and that's why I initially felt Condlln's casting was exciting news. In Canadian theatre, the majority of theatregoers are female, while women are still underrepresented as directors, playwrights and even in acting companies – and so such outside-the-box casting by An Enemy of the People's director Richard Rose is welcome.
However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Condlln is not doing anything at Tarragon that she hasn't done many times before during her 11 seasons at the Stratford Festival. For most of theatre's history as an art form, women were not allowed on the stage – and so when you saw the talented Condlln playing Chrysothemis in Elektra or Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream at Stratford, she was playing roles originally written for male actors, too.
And, of course, turning historical casting on its head by even casting women as male characters is not uncommon or new in classical theatre – from Rose's production of King Lear starring Patricia Hamilton in the 1980s to Seana McKenna playing Richard III in Stratford just a few years ago.
"I think what's kind of great about it is that I didn't think it was a big deal," Condlln told me of being contacted by Rose to play Dr. Stockmann. "Why shouldn't a woman play this part?"
On the other hand, a critic would be right to note that what Condlln is doing at Tarragon doesn't happen every day: She's playing Stockmann as a woman, not as a man, and the character has gone through a gender transition. (It required only the alteration of a handful of pronouns and adjectives in Florian Borchmeyer's adaptation.)
So, unlike the male actors who played Chrysothemis or Helena in ancient Athens or Elizabethan London, Condlln is playing a part in line with her own gender identity and her own sexuality, too – as the doctor is still in a relationship with a woman. That's an opportunity that didn't come along often for Condlln in Stratford.
For Tarragon's audiences, however, will the fact that Dr. Stockmann is now played by a woman as a woman make An Enemy of the People any different? Will it actually alter how the play is received any more substantially than that an older actor, David Fox, is replacing Richard McMillan as Stockmann's father-in-law? Or that Tamara Podemski – who plays Stockmann's wife – is pregnant for this run (and so, in this mostly naturalistic production, her character is too)?
Rose doesn't think so. "There's nothing to say the part of Dr. Stockmann has to be a man," says the director, whose production is based on a celebrated one from Berlin's Schaubuehne directed by Thomas Ostermeier. "She is a person in a struggle – a struggle about politics; the environment; a sibling battle, not necessarily a brother battle. And so gender really wasn't an issue."
In a way then, what may be remarkable about Condlln's casting is how unremarkable it is – as Condlln points out that Ontario has a female, gay premier and same-sex marriage has been fully legal in Canada for a decade now. Perhaps theatre artists are only beginning to realize how much recent triumphs of gay rights have opened up opportunities for gender-blind casting, though.
In particular, thanks to same-sex marriage, it is easier than ever to substitute female characters for male ones and vice versa in contemporary, realistic plays – and updated productions of older ones. So many plays written since Ibsen – the father of modern, naturalistic drama – centre on marriages and, as Rose argues, even the term "same-sex marriage" is beginning to sound old-fashioned.
Many female actors believe that the word "actress" is an archaic term, too – and should go the way of aviatrix or editrix. But "actress" does survive, largely because most theatre productions, unlike An Enemy of the People, cast along gender lines. And when it comes to awards season – while Toronto's Dora Mavor Moore Awards may have an award for "outstanding female actor" instead of the Academy Awards' "best actress" – male actors and female actors are still in separate categories.
Which raises a further question: If the success of the gay-rights movement has changed casting opportunities for women in naturalistic plays, how will the rise of the transgender movement affect gender-swapped roles in non-naturalistic plays?
There's no doubt drag acts and panto dames are going to become increasingly problematic performances in the years ahead. How, in another five or 10 years after Caitlyn Jenner, will audiences react to a man playing a woman, or a woman playing a man on stage? Will it depend on the gender assigned at birth of the performer in question – or on the gender identity of the performer in question? (And how is a critic to know?)
If increased transgender visibility will challenge how theatre artists play with the casting of characters, it will also create opportunities for theatre companies to explore sex and gender in new ways in plays both classic and contemporary. In Winnipeg, Theatre by the River has just finished a run of Edward II by Christopher Marlowe (adapted by Kendra Jones and directed by Sarah Constible) that featured Mel Marginet as the young Prince Edward.
But Marginet, a female actor, wasn't just doing a gender swap as when McKenna played Richard III. Instead, she played a male teenage character who transitioned to a trans woman over the course of the production.
What's the difference – from an audience perspective – between a female actor playing a character as a man, and a female actor playing the character as a trans woman? I wish I'd seen the production so I could tell you.
All I know is that the question of when it is news when a female actor steps into a role originally written for a male actor is only going to get more complicated for critics going forward.
An Enemy of the People is on stage at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto to Nov. 1 (tarragontheatre.com).