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Why These Theater Companies are Casting Women in Male Roles

“You don’t have to be the damsel in distress. You can be the monster.”

Sarah Koerner as Dracula   Photo: Courtesy of the Chicago Mammals

Lady Macbeth, Bernarda Alba, and Medea notwithstanding, most of the theater’s juiciest villains tend to be written for men. That’s beginning to change, and two upcoming productions feature women in fearsome—and traditionally male—roles.

Jeff Award-winning actor Katherine Keberlein portrays the infamous Richard III in Oracle Theatre’s No Beast So Fierce, a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic. And over at the Chicago Mammals, director Bob Fisher helms All Girl Dracula with actor Sarah Koerner playing the blood-sucking vampire.

“Look, I’m no sociologist,” says Max Truax,  director of No Beast So Fierce, “but I feel like over the centuries, we as a culture have made ‘white male’ the default storytelling setting. And from what I’ve seen at auditions, the talent pool of women is bigger than the men. That default setting does an injustice to everybody.”

In No Beast So Fierce, Truax’s female king’s deformities become a striking illustration of misogyny and the crippling effects of a tyrannical patriarchy. In the famous monologue that opens the play (“Now is the winter of our discontent…”), Richard III describes himself as a malformed monster. In Truax’s adaptation, Richard’s repellent nature doesn’t spring from a twisted spine but from the fact that she’s a woman in 15th-century England who couldn’t legally inherit property. “Being a woman [meant] being an incomplete human,” says Truax, “That’s our context and that’s what we’re exploring.”

For his part, Fisher began noticing the imbalance decades ago: “When I started out here 20 years ago I wanted to be the next Sam Shepard. I wrote plays about cowboys. But I started noticing that for every [male] actor we saw at the Mammals, there’d be like six amazingly talented women. So I just started thinking, why not take the gender restriction off the table?”

He did. All Girl Dracula is Fisher’s fourth all-female adaptation, following All Girl Moby Dick (2011), All Girl Frankenstein (2012), and last year’s All Girl Edgar Allan Poe. "When you see All Girl Frankenstein or Dracula, you have a chance to witness incredible actresses doing virtuoso performances in a way that is rare and unique,” he says.

Allowing women to be the monster is all part of the exploration for Fisher. “I want to do All Girl Beowulf. All Girl Huck Finn. All Girl Oedipus, ” he says. “I want to tell women ‘You don’t have to be the Bride of Frankenstein. You don’t have to be the damsel in distress. You can be the monster.”

Go Oracle Theatre’s No Beast So Fierce runs through Nov. 8 at the Storefront Theatre, 66 E. Randolph St., publicaccesstheatre.org; Free.

Go The Chicago Mammals’s All Girl Dracula runs through Nov. 14 at Zoo Studios, 4001 N. Ravenswood St., Suite B3, chicagomammals.webflow.io; $25

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