Carol Lashof and Libby Vega aren’t ashamed to reveal their infatuations with the “dead white guys” who populate the Western Canon.
The founders of Berkeley theater company Those Women Productions cut their teeth on Shakespeare, Homer and Sophocles. Now, instead of shunning the classic works, the avowed feminists read between the lines of their favorite texts. They pull out the subplots that resonate with them and the characters they believe deserve more airtime.
Take the eponymous character in their current production, Margaret of Anjou.
Margaret was the wife of King Henry VI, who was king since infancy and mentally unfit to rule. Margaret ruled England by proxy, commanding troops during the Wars of the Roses. She figures prominently in Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays and his Richard III.
Written by Lauren Jansen-Parkes, Margaret of Anjou tells a story in which the queen — in all her bravery, cunning, violence, and guts — is at the center. Jansen-Parkes lifts some of Shakespeare’s original language and adds new lines and scenes written in his style and meter. She wrote the play as a student at England’s Exeter University, where both she and Vega received MFAs in Staging Shakespeare.
Vega, director and co-producer of Margaret of Anjou, knew the play was perfect for Those Women Productions. But she had to convince Lashof, who was unsure of how it would click with a contemporary Bay Area audience generally uninterested in the intricacies of British dynasties.
They did end up chopping some of the historical details. But it quickly became clear just how relevant the play was to present-day politics. The issues of gender and power at the center of the story are eerily similar to the dynamics of current elections.
“Margaret is an ambitious woman who wants power and goes after it — and she’s not a role model,” said Lashof, co-producer. “That was the first thing that got me really excited about the play.”
Those Women intentionally put on plays in which the female protagonists have the right to be unlikeable and complicated. Margaret’s character resonated more and more with the producers as they rehearsed the play throughout primary season.
Hillary Clinton, said Lashof, “is another powerful, ambitious woman who is not a fairytale heroine or the fairytale villainess.” The media tend to portray female politicians as one or the other, she said.
Besides, while Margaret is responsible for multiple deaths, she is tame compared to the characters in previous Those Women plays.
“Better than the woman who cuts off the heads of her children!” Lashof insisted.
She did worry that Margaret was too ruthless at times. Vega thought otherwise but understood that some edits were needed to better show the character’s motives and humanity. For one particularly mean line of Margaret’s, Lashof worked out a revision with Jansen-Parkes by texting bits of iambic pentameter back and forth across the Atlantic. Vega embraced the change.
“We can insist on our vision and listen to the other person,” Lashof said. “That’s what makes it work.”
Those Women Productions came into existence in 2014. Lashof and Vega were introduced by Debbie Carton, librarian at the Berkeley Public Library. Lashof is a playwright and former professor at St. Mary’s College of California. Vega, a Berkeley High School alum, had recently returned from graduate school to the Bay Area, where she works as a math tutor and drama teacher.
They kicked off with Lashof’s play Just Deserts, Greek mythology injected with feminism. Another play by Lashof, Disclosure, came shortly after. Next they challenged local playwrights to write scripts in the Those Women way; the result was In Plain Sight, a collection of short retellings of classic stories.
Margaret of Anjou, at Live Oak Theatre through Sept. 11, is their most ambitious production yet, with a 10-person cast of Shakespearean-trained actors.
“It’s a show I’ve been wanting to do for a long time,” Vega said. “I felt so lucky to get this cast.”
At the beginning, the company used donated performance space at Willard Middle School. Free admission was a condition of the donation, but it became an essential part of the company’s ethos. Those Women practice “radical hospitality,” meaning audience members pay what they can.
These days Those Women runs on donations from individuals and organizations, a city of Berkeley Civic Arts grant, and donated costumes from local companies and school theater departments.
Those Women is among a small number of Bay Area theater companies with feminist missions. Symmetry Theatre is dedicated to gender parity in its casts. 3Girls Theatre provides a venue for female playwrights. Last year, Shotgun Players produced a season of varied plays, all written by women. Brava! For Women in the Arts runs the Brava Theater Center, which hosts feminist, radical, and diverse performances.
While also passionate about representation, Lashof and Vega differ a bit from some of their peers in their emphasis on content. They aim to put on plays that explore oppression and patriarchy, often in a classical context.
The relevance of Margaret of Anjou suggests these themes are timeless.
To this day, for example, powerful women who are in the public eye receive barrages of misogynist insults. Margaret was subject to much the same — though you might not see “she-wolf of France” or “Amazonian trull” hurled around on Twitter.
Margaret of Anjou is playing Friday-Sunday at the Live Oak Theatre through Sept. 11. For information visit Those Women Productions online.
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