Photo by Michael Brosilow
About 2/3 of the way through About Face Theatre’s production of Gender Play, or what you Will, the play’s carefully constructed forward motion as an LGBTQ master class on the Bard by co-creator and star Wil Wilhelm and a not at all veiled commentary on the horrific raft of anti-trans laws being passed by conservatives suddenly pauses for…a tarot reading and a 10-minute dance party during which the audience is invited to shake it out with the indefatigable Wilhelm on stage. My first impression was that this clever and fascinating show had gone a bit off the rails. I mean, OK: Wilhelm and director/co-creator Erin Murray do host a tarot-themed podcast, but the connection to Gender Play seems tenuous at best, and the dance party, while thoroughly enjoyed by those who took part in it, feels totally superfluous. I wondered if a play can jump the shark in the middle of its opening performance.
After the context returned and Wilhelm once again led the audience on a rainbow-hued whirlwind ride through Shakespeare’s greatest hits while illustrating the queer bona fides of the Bard and reminding us that these plays, while too often seen today (incorrectly) as the property of snobbish cishet intellectuals, were actually written for and celebrated by the lower classes and outcasts of Shakespeare’s time. I decided that I’d look past the unnecessary interruption and still give this play my highest recommendation. After all, it’s a 100-minute show without an intermission; I can just consider the tarot/dance party thing as a lively (and entertaining) intermission. Why not? The play and the performance both deserve it.
Wilhelm, a highly personable trans performer, is probably the perfect person to take us through this journey, which includes telling several personal anecdotes along with delivering some of the most wonderful monologues and sonnets ever written and contextualizing them in the history of queerness. The conceit of the play is that Wilhelm, through a seance, actually conjured the spirit of Shakespeare himself and was able to discuss all of this with the Elizabethan poet and playwright who, we are told, was totally queer.
Whether he actually was or not is unknown, as most of his life is shrouded in the dark veil of history. But any scholar knows that, after a marriage in his late teens to Ann Hathaway that produced three children before Shakespeare was 21, he left Stratford-Upon-Avon for a protracted time. During this absence, he dedicated two poems, “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece,” to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. One theory has him following this by dedicating his first 17 sonnets to Henry. A gay pledge of love? Who knows? (Wilhelm and Murray also acknowledge that the boy was under pressure to marry and that Shakespeare was paid for these sonnets by Henry’s frustrated guardian.)
Whatever was the case, as Wilhelm tells us, Shakespeare then moved to London and into the pages of history books. But the Bard spent his whole career fascinated by gender roles, crossdressing, and queerness, all of which were far less controversial in 16th Century London than in 21st Century America. (There seems to be something essentially wrong with that.) He was also fascinated by the underclass and by those whom society has trodden upon. (Even a cursory reading of his work proves these contentions to be true.) Wilhelm compares themself and all queer people with those who intrigued the Bard and seeks to prove that modern LGBTQ+ audiences are precisely the right ones for Shakespeare.
They do this while performing on a black box set by Steven Abbott designed to be made simply beautiful with properties by Lonnae Hickman. As they wander through this fairy fantasy world draped with red velvet and furniture and properties that defy any sense of chronology and logic—old-fashioned mirrors and tables intermingled with the most modern-looking of mannequins, a bubble machine coexisting with an ornate tea service, etc.—Wilhelm blends them all together in the same way that their words compress time as they simultaneously reflect 2023 and 1600. It’s a kind of magic, but isn’t that what the stage always is?
Through all of this, the sound designers (a duo known as TRQPITECA) and the lighting designer, Gabrielle Strong, work to enhance the mood, illustrate topic and textual changes, and immerse the audience in the beauty of the show they are here to see. (The fact that there is a rack of clothing, period and otherwise, in the lobby for showgoers to dress in doesn’t hurt either.) And within the play, Uriel Gomez’s costumes, whether they are worn by Wilhelm, the mannequins, or even the audience member brought up for the tarot reading, are simply lovely.
So, whether you choose to get up and dance or pretend it’s just a rowdy intermission, and no matter what you think of the tarot reading, you will find yourself easily immersed in Wilhelm’s world and leave convinced—or at least genuinely intrigued—by their interpretation of the Bard. And anyway, spending the better part of two hours in Wilhelm’s company is worth your time all by itself.
Gender Play, or what you Will, is an About Face Theater production and is playing at the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee, Chicago, until June 3. Tickets are available at the About Face Theatre website. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.