The plot of Planet Ant's latest play, "Good Men and True," sounds like a joke only an English major would understand: What happens when you throw three of Shakespeare's cross-dressing female leads into a boat upon a stormy sea?
The resulting conversation that delves into the issues of language, identity and gender is both dramatic and full of humor, said director Sara Catheryn Wolf. After all, you can't put Portia, Rosalind and Viola in a room without sparking a tempest of some kind.
"Good Men and True" premieres Friday and continues through March 28 with performances Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m.; there also are 2 p.m. Sunday matinees March 15 and 22 at Planet Ant in Hamtramck.
Wolf, a seasoned Shakespearean actress, said "Good Men and True" is an ideal play for every kind of Shakespeare fan. If you're an iambic-pentameter aficionado, you'll love the mashup of three beloved plays. If you're a Bard beginner, you'll gravitate to the relatable storylines and modern language. Win-win, she noted.
Wolf is guiding this original work of local playwrights Marty Shea and Ian Bonner. Shea and Bonner created the play at Planet Ant's behest, and they collaborated with Wolf and Planet Ant Artistic Director Shawn Handlon for the final production.
Shea said the collaboration between Wolf, Handlon and Bonner was part of the fun — they threw out ideas in a brainstorming session that led to this unique exchange between iconic Shakespeare characters.
"The story goes into more about a study of gender roles, even into modern times," Shea said. "We use the theme that these characters are all in disguise. But isn't every character on stage really in disguise? The 'All the world's a stage' speech becomes the kind of motif that we use throughout the play to examine that and what does that mean. Where is the real person?"
The all-local production features Wolf from St. Clair Shores, Jaclynn Cherry (Rochester Hills), DeAnnah Kleitz-Singleton (Hamtramck), Kez Settle (Detroit), and Jackie Strez (Dearborn) with stage management by Nicholas Pobutsky (Detroit).
Without giving away too much, the plot goes something like this: A violent tempest rages while occupants of a storm-weary boat debate their forthcoming fate. When a member of the crew suggests that a woman hiding aboard has angered King Neptune, causing him to create such a storm, the passengers begin to question each other, themselves and the roles they play in society.
"It's like Shakespeare meets (French playwright) Sartre; they're trapped and they have to find the truth of something to find their freedom," Wolf said. "While it is a comedy, there are some very poignant moments. A lot of it has to do with the relationships and the self-discovery of who they are. There's a line in the play that says: 'When I'm playing a role, I forget about everything else.' Women who play those male counterparts — are they aware of who they are all the time? Do they recognize their alter ego?"
Historically, Shakespeare is said to have written these female roles to show what happens when women try to change their otherwise lowly status. Although all three characters are educated and come from wealthy families, they would be limited in terms of their rights and considered inferior to men. They would need to disguise themselves to participate in a "man's world."
Portia from "The Merchant of Venice," becomes a man to travel to Venice and become a lawyer. Viola from "Twelfth Night" seeks to transform to win Duke Orsino. And Rosalind in "As You Like It," becomes a shepherd to test her love's true affection.
"These characters are just people" when it comes down to it, Wolf said. "The actress who plays Portia has to play herself, Portia and Balthazar. You see she plays the part with her own complexity. You see her wrestle with Portia's famous 'The quality of mercy' speech, trying to find the truth in it."
Karen Dybis is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.
'Good Men And True'
Friday through March 28