Earlier this year my theatre company, The Shakespearience Group, performed its first full scale community theatre production of Twelfth Night. We ran the production with both a youth and adult cast for our “main plot” characters (Viola, Sebastian, Olivia, Orsino, Malvolio, Feste), whilst retained an adult cast for the subplot characters (Maria, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Antonio, Captain/Officers/Priest, Fabian). This necessarily created two very different productions. What I’d like to introduce today are some thoughts that occurred to me during our rehearsal process and that ultimately caused us to play the adult cast role of Feste in “faux drag.”
A faux queen is essentially a biologically female performance artist who adopts the style of a stereotypical male drag queen. The faux queen draws attention to traditional gender norms/roles, and potentially has the power to not just entertain, but to educate. According to Monique Jenkinson, aka “Fauxnique” (the first faux queen to win a major drag pageant, Miss Trannyshack 2003) in Bust Magazine, “[drag] comes down to a sort of self-awareness, a self-consciousness about playing around with femininity”.
Twelfth Night boasts a tantalizing breeches role in Viola/Cesario, and creates a love triangle between Viola/Cesario, Olivia, and Orsino which is then troubled further by the appearance of Sebastian. Whilst this breeching or cross-dressing on the one hand draws attention to femininity through the language, the outward show is more masculine-centred as Viola/Cesario attempts to fit in, and assert herself, and indeed finds ways of usurping some of her own femininity in order to gain power.
But that’s troubling in some ways … why should she need to become more masculine in order to assert herself?
For anyone familiar with original practices of Shakespearean performance, the concept of cross-dressing and breeches roles is apparent. The need for young boys to play female roles was nothing new. However, how can we comment on this act in modern productions? Particularly when casting is either gender-blind, or true to the character’s named gender. This is not to say that our production was perfect by any means – but we certainly attempted to question gender in our casting. We had female actors play the roles of Viola and Olivia, while Sir Andrew was also played by a female in male drag, and Feste was again played by a female in female drag.
And while Viola/Cesario uses both her femininity and masculinity to assert herself and her position, it is questionable whether s/he is actually “self-aware” as Fauxnique comments. Certainly Viola/Cesario is self-conscious, but not in the way that a drag performer is self-aware and self-conscious. So, what sort of power dynamics, and gender roles can be disrupted with a faux drag performance in Shakespeare?
Feste is arguably one of the most self-aware, and self-conscious characters in Twelfth Night. He consistently comments on the progress of others in the play as they travel along their journeys – and he marks his own presence as well. In his opening scene, as he proves Olivia to be foolish, he asserts his self-awareness to the audience commenting “Lady, cucullus non facit monachum: that’s as much to say as I wear not motley in my brain” (1.5, 41-2). The italicized Latin refers to the saying “a hood does not make a monk”, which not only references his future disguise but can also refer to his current attire. Combine that double meaning with a troubling of gender norms by playing Feste as a faux queen, and the audience is given license to accept difference as normative, rather than automatically counting it as “Other”.
Feste is “Othered” by all the female characters in the play, and as for the male characters – they don’t officially “Other” him, but they do place him on a lower playing field despite his ability to be more self-aware, and self-conscious than they are. Feste is acutely aware of his position/status within the world, and that is evidenced in his relationships with others. Imagine now if that acutely aware Feste is also consciously performing gender as we continuously modernize our productions of Twelfth Night. A simple cross-gendered casting of Feste, then played in faux drag creates complex relationships between the Fool and the rest of the cast – and it mimics modern cultural conditions that “Other” those who do not fit into our “gendered norms”.
Those gendered norms are then constantly questioned by each character as they constantly refer to Feste, in this instance a biological female dressed in faux drag, as “sir”. This is highlighted, for example, in 3.1 where Viola (disguised as Cesario) converses with Feste – the two continually refer to one another as “sir”, and discuss the physical attribute of a beard. There is now a more complex reading of this interchange:
Feste: Now Jove, in his next commodity of hair, send thee a beard!
Viola: By my troth I’ll tell thee, I am almost sick for one – thought I would not have it grow on my chin (30-2).
On the surface level we see Feste (male) address Cesario (male) and wish the gods to help him grow into manhood with the appearance of a beard. At a secondary level, the audience knows Feste (male) is addressing Viola (female) disguised as Cesario (male appearance). On a tertiary level, audiences aware of original performance practices would be aware that Feste (male actor/male character) is addressing Viola (female character/boy actor) disguised as Cesario (male character) doubly commenting on the youth’s lack of beard. This can be further troubled then by layering a faux queen performance from Feste.
In this instance Feste (female actor/male character/faux queen appearance) embodies an absolute breeching of gendered norms on and off stage, forcing the audience to acknowledge the role of gender in relationships, whilst subconsciously asserting that gender is performative, not necessarily biological. The simple interchange above now also references the true drag queen’s need for a beard free face through the smooth face of the faux queen; for drag queens, feminine attributes are highly stylized and over-accentuated to draw attention to their absence, whilst for the faux queen the stylized over-accentuation draws attention to their disguised presence in the performance artist, and their absence in others. Thus, Feste as the faux queen is given the ability to “Other” those in conversation with him simply by his outward appearance. This has the potential to be a real game-changer for the role of the Fool in this instance, giving the audience an easier connection to the physical, emotional, and political license the Fool uses to negotiate with.
Our production in August of this year was, in its few weeks of rehearsal, unable to fully take on these beginnings of an argument – however, I feel that there is some value in this dialogue. How could the performance be radically altered, and yet still retain the original essence of gendered commentary, by really going full faux? What would happen if Feste lip-synced all of his/her songs? What if all of the sir’s were replaced by a “miss” or “ma’am” or “lady”? How would that alter Feste’s self-awareness? Can Feste’s relationships with Viola and Olivia be further questioned by playing opposite male actors in full drag? The audience will hear a difference when they “allow vox” – and will so question the true voice of Feste, and of Viola and Olivia.
I don’t believe that my quest for a performance of Twelfth Night that updates questions of gender norms to make them culturally relevant will ever be completely over – but I do believe that I have a few more explorations to attempt with this production. For the first time, post-performance, I was the subject of quizzical glances and an uncountable number of photograph requests with “the tranny” as my “Othering” of myself garnered some immediate curiosity amongst the audience. And although I don’t think anyone truly believed I was a man, my own family members were unable to identify me on stage for the first time in my own performance history.
But man, can that Feste ever be a “real” drag though?!