By now you’ve probably seen the online meme in which Batman slaps Robin over seemingly minor transgressions. Well, the same idea plays a part in the success of Britain’s Propeller theater company. Propeller is all-male not simply because the troupe wants to perform Shakespeare as the Bard’s work was done originally. Members of the British ensemble like the freedom to be physically or verbally rowdy onstage, right up to the edge of abuse, that comes when it’s a bunch of guys playing both lads and lasses.
“You can think of our ensemble as a sports team,” said actor Chris Myles by phone from Ann Arbor, Mich., where Propeller was performing before coming to Minneapolis this week with productions of “Twelfth Night” and “The Taming of the Shrew.”
“A lot of what we do is pass the ball — pass the energy, if you will — and keep it alive in the air. Being of the same gender allows us to get real physical with each other without the same sort of overtones” that would arise, for instance, if a male actor were to strike a female onstage.
Propeller, whose shows will alternate performances at the Guthrie starting this weekend, was formed 16 years ago by director Edward Hall, son of film and theater director Peter Hall, who founded the Royal Shakespeare Company.
So far, Propeller has produced Shakespeare only, from epic history cycles to small, “pocket”-sized shows. The company has drawn high praise for its highly physical stagings, the clarity of its textual gloss and its inventive use of other talents by cast members who may play instruments or dance.
“Ed brings a muscularity and clarity to this work,” said Guthrie director Joe Dowling. “He knows how to translate Shakespeare into the present without compromising the text.”
All-male strengths and weaknesses
The all-male approach has drawn some consternation in Britain, where Edward Hall also is artistic director of Hampstead Theatre in London. An all-male company seems like both a throwback and a means to deny work to contemporary women who already face fewer roles than men do.
On the other hand, an all-male company allows for jocular immediacy that a mixed one might not as easily afford, said Myles, who has been with Propeller since its first show in 1997, “Henry V.”
“We can get very physical with each other because man-on-man violence is still bad and is still abuse, but it’s different,” he said.
Myles referenced non-contact violence in past Propeller productions that audiences dug because they were clear that it was men playing characters.
In “Henry V,” “we had a punch-bag like in a boxing gym,” he said. “Every time a blow was struck, a soldier hit it with a baseball bat. It gave a very satisfying thud.”
In “Henry VI,” which has a number of beheadings, “one of the butchers in the chorus would destroy a red cabbage every time someone’s head got lopped off,” said Myles. “It became really intense with little bits of cabbage flying into the audience.”
Such forcefulness is one of the things that attracted Dowling, even to a production of a Shakespearean play of which he is not particularly fond.
“I admire [‘Shrew’] but I don’t like it,” said the Guthrie leader. “I don’t like violence against women being laughed at. But when you use two blokes, knocking the hell out of each other, somehow I like that better.”
Edward Hall uses a Brechtian approach to the work, Myles said. Actors change costumes and scenery in full view of the audience.
“We have the feeling of growing up in a chorus that morphs into the characters of the play,” he said. “In ‘Twelfth Night,’ the chorus is the Zanies, followers of the fool as referenced by [servant] Malvolio. In ‘Shrew,’ we start off as guests at a wedding who play a trick on [drunk] Christopher Sly.”
But don’t confuse what Propeller does with original practices, the all-male troupes that perform Shakespeare with original period costumes and instruments, minimal props and house lights up.
“We’re similar to O.P. in the way we play the text,” said Myles. “But our design is very different.”
The look of “Twelfth Night” is influenced by “Last Year at Marienbad,” a 1961 black-and-white film by French director Alain Resnais. “Shrew” is designed with a broad, 1970s-style brush. But the text remains mostly unchanged in both plays.
An all-male troupe, Myles said, raises the stakes for love scenes, especially for younger and older audience members.
“When you’ve got a lot of children in the house, they get squeamish about physical intimacy, regardless of gender,” said Myles. And the older audience members?
“They don’t know if the men who’re playing women who’re playing men — ah, Shakespeare — will follow through with it. When they get ready to kiss, there’s an extra frisson you get.”