Broadway-lovers will recognize actress Jessica Stone from celebrated performances in Grease, The Odd Couple, and most recently as sass-pot Erma in the revival of Anything Goes, starring Sutton Foster. These days, Stone has taken on the leading role of director. After directing an all-male production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Forum at the Williamstown Theatre Festival five years ago, Stone is revisiting the classic by Burt Shevelove, Larry Gelbart and Stephen Sondheim this November at Two River Theater Company in Red Bank, NJ — again with an all-male cast.
Why an all-male production? Nicky Martin, former artistic director of Williamstown, initially asked Stone if she wanted to act in the show. "I thought, 'What part would I want to play?' Then I thought 'Ugh I don’t want to be in Forum.' But why did I have that response?," said Stone. "I really love the score and it’s such a funny book. I realized it's because these roles like the dumb hottie, the shrewish wife and the cunning courtesan have been passed down to us from Plautus — this male playwright who was writing for men." Stone wondered if a woman had been the one writing, or if there had been female actors back in Ancient Rome, would the stereotypes that had been passed down to us be any different?"
She brought her insight to Martin. "If you think about it, the actual musical that was written in the 60s — by a group of men — was basically for a group of men. Six of the women in the show don't say a word and two of them have very small roles." She suggested an all-male production of the show set in Ancient Rome and performed the way it would have been back then with all male actors. Martin jumped on board.
The artistic choice to feature an all-male cast allows Stone the opportunity to dissect and speak to the female stereotypes that originally sparked her interest. "There's a fresh insight into the world by doing it this way," said Stone. "There's an allowable muscularity to the comedy when it's all-male that is really fun. Domina, the shrewish wife, runs the show, and to see her played like a line-backer is funny." Having the slave characters played by men also alters audience perspective in a way that perhaps isn't possible had women been playing these roles. "You do feel a little safer to laugh at the illiterate female slave when it's played by a guy," said Stone. "It's less of a guilty pleasure and more of just a pleasure." Stone describes the gender-bending in her production as a distinct type of clowning. When it comes to leading a group of men into playing female characters she said, "It's a tricky thing because it's neither gorillas in tutus nor is it drag. I wanted them to play these roles for real."
It's not only the actors who are all men. The entire creative team is, as well. From choreographer Denis Jones, to music director Gary Adler, scenic designer Alexander Dodge and costume designer Clint Ramos, Stone is nearly a lone wolf. Her stage manager, Libby Unsworth, is the only other woman involved.
While some would be hyper-aware that they are the only woman in a room full of men, Stone doesn't think about it in those terms. "I don’t know if it's because I'm married with two sons, but no. It's not any different than working with female actors," said Stone. "I care about character, story, comedy and timing. I care that my actors feel heard, safe and confident. Whether they are male or female those are my goals."
As a director, Stone doesn't feel there are things that happen when you direct a man versus a woman. "It's individual," she said. "It's more that this is what happens with an actor when they are trying to dive into a story. I don't see any sweeping generalizations in regards to the sexes."
"I will say that I'm really glad my stage manager is a woman," she winked.
The lack of substantial and affective female characters in commercial theatre is a problem garnering more attention. It’s something that Stone is aware of, but she believes that she can live guilt-free with this all-male production considering that all of the female parts are male constructs anyway.
"Somebody else might say, 'Do you think that women might complain that you've taken work away from women?'" said Stone. "My answer is: If I were trying to do an all-male Steel Magnolias then maybe so, but Forum is already sort of all-male." As a female director, Stone is confident that this is a step forward for women in theatre. That'll show them.