Z Theatre Company’s “The Female Question,” a current resident at the Surgeons Hall, is written and directed by Juno Evans. We sit down to a rather heavy intellectual game, in which a younger and older version of Shakespeare both meet on a metaphysical plane which, from its zany impossibility, can be narrowed down to existing anywhere other than in our own reality. They decide, as subdivided writers’ psyches are wont to do, to hold a debate about the credibility of the female characters in their plays. One by one, significant examples of these characters are summoned to the stage to testify.
The drawback of “The Female Question” is that its admirable ambition has only in the end the result of making you think of much better plays. “The Gospel Inquiry,” which Sandy Nelson brought to last year’s Fringe, imagined a Lord Leveson style investigation into the Bible’s coverage of the Crucifixion. This play worked because the beats were so sick; the dazzling dialogue and acting ensured that the premise would get only ever sillier. By contrast, “The Female Question” erects its absurdity and expects this to be enough. The cast is typically dependent upon an expressiveness which is not quite slapstick or clowning for the humour.
Moreover, the play is not confident enough with the Bard. An audience which is lured to a play by Shakespeare’s face on the poster is most likely to want to hear a bit of the man’s work. But we are left with something like a David Bowie retrospective with no music. The characters converse in the language from the school corridor, not the set texts, and when they discuss the plays, they do so in the unadorned English of student coursework essays. Another problem about putting Shakespeare on stage in this way is that there is too much of him for anybody to summarise in fifty minutes. I would have chosen Juliet, Desdemona, Cordelia, and, yes, the Shrew, because I am most familiar with the plays in which they appear. Evans probably pauses slightly too long over The Winter’s Tale for similarly personal reasons.
Was Shakespeare really inadequate at representing women? If compared to Sylvia Plath, then he might have been, but this play otherwise just wants to have something to chat about. There are occasionally interesting ironies rattling around like peas inside “The Female Question.” To have the young Shakespeare played by a woman is a good one, considering that all of his own women were played by young men. There are not enough of these pleasantries, however, to win me over.