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New York theater is in the midst of a mini trend. Not the glut of Hollywood types beelining to Broadway, but men dressed as women on stage. First, there’s Brian Bedford directing himself as Lady Bracknell in “The Importance of Being Earnest.” On the opposite end of the spectrum is the bejeweled, befeathered dragfest “Priscilla Queen of the Desert.” The first show is classical; the second, camp.
Somewhere in between falls “The Comedy of Errors,” which wraps up its two-week run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music March 27. What puts this production in with the other two is that it’s staged by Propeller, the British, all-male Shakespeare company, which, in the grand tradition of 16th century theater, leaves all women’s roles to the men.
I haven’t seen “Priscilla” or “The Importance of Being Earnest” — and probably won’t. But if anyone can make sense of the recent fixation on gender play, it’s those who have been doing it the longest. Propeller was established in 1997 by Edward Hall, son of English theater legend Sir Peter Hall and brother of the actress Rebecca Hall. It’s always been boys only. Robert Hands’ turn as Adriana, the leading lady in “The Comedy of Errors,” is his third female role for the company, having been cast as Helena in “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream” and Margaret in “Rose Rage” (an adaptation of “Richard VI”). Yet he has little to say about the current cross-dressing theater craze and why people seem to like it. He points out that it’s the only thing these three productions have in common. “Priscilla” is inherently a flashy drag cabaret with “a little story laced through, a very touching one.” As for Bedford’s Bracknell, Hands doesn’t care for the idea. “I’d rather see a woman playing it,” he says. “I think it’s a distraction.”
Then he catches himself. “I’m speaking against myself! What am I saying?”
To Propeller’s defense, says Hands, who two hours before curtain looks as casual male as it gets in Levi’s and a purple V-neck, is that all the women are played by men. “The whole concept is quite masculine and robust. It’s not dainty,” he says. “You have to imagine the whole thing.”
There is an upside to being the girl. “There’s more focus on you than perhaps there’d be if you were just a woman playing it,” says Hands, whose last female role before this was in 2003. “You get a little bit more attention.”
He is impossible to miss on stage, prancing around in a canary yellow coat over leopard print leggings and gold gladiator sandals with a cone heel that show off his skinny legs. “For a man they’re really thin,” he admits. “But for a man impersonating a woman, they look quite plausible.”
This iteration of “The Comedy of Errors” is set in the Eighties, somewhere vaguely Mexican — both excuses for outfitting the backup players in sombreros, retro mustaches and ample lamé. For the theater layman — I’ll speak for myself — this is as entertaining as Shakespeare gets. Would it be without the cross-dressing angle? Definitely not.
Hands’ Adriana is a “high-maintenance, high-end Lady Who Lunches,” he says. “She’s used to having her way. She’s a sort of a Latin princess. Well, in my head, not particularly how Shakespeare wrote her. In my head she’s got hair like Penélope Cruz, like a thick, black mane.”
In reality, Hands could not look less Latin. He is light pink with a head of thinning hair to match. On stage, that voluminous mane is purely imaginary, although wardrobe did allow for a leopard print scarf knotted over Hands’ bare head — his idea. “I instantly knew I wanted to have one of those things in my hair,” says Hands. “You know, like Madonna in ‘Desperately Seeking Susan.’ She wears a leopard print scarf in her hair. I had to have one.”