This is the year of the bad-ass woman for Ohio Shakespeare Festival, which is taking the classical theater company in a new direction by telling stories about brave, strong female protagonists.

Tess Burgler, the theater's managing director, said she began pushing what the theater is actually calling its "Lady Disdain" season three years ago, with the goal of telling classic women's stories. The season's title comes from a famous nickname that Benedick gives Beatrice during their verbal sparring in "Much Ado About Nothing."

Upcoming "Lady Disdain" selections at Greystone Hall in Akron include everything from the world premiere of "Maid Marion: An Adventure, with Music" to the contemporary "She Kills Monsters," which features the adventures of a Dungeons & Dragons-loving heroine.

This year's focus on strong women is a dramatic shift for the company, considering that most classical plays, including Shakespeare's, have fewer lead and supporting roles for women than men. That meant the male actors at Ohio Shakespeare were getting stronger because they were continually being offered better roles, while there weren't enough opportunities to go around for women.

"They felt that glass ceiling, like you would in any classic company,'' Burgler said of the female actors.

That's changing now, starting with the world premiere of the family theater adventure "Maid Marion" Friday through Sept. 29, written by company member/actor Sarah Coon. The play, with original music by company member Scott McKenna Campbell, focuses on the heroism of Robin Hood's wife as a sequel to the "Robin Hood" adaptation that Terry Burgler, Tess Burgler's father, created three years ago for productions at Stan Hywet and Greystone Hall.

In "Maid Marion," she and her friend Katherine (Brianna DeRosa), previously her lady in waiting, have joined with Robin Hood and his Merry Men in Sherwood forest. The women have been heavily trained to fight but still have to muscle their way in to fight along with the men against the villain Sir Stephen (Geoff Knox). In this tale, directed by Nancy Cates (Tess Burgler's mother), it's the formidable woman who saves the day.

Tess Burgler stressed that telling more women's stories means bringing more women into the company. Starring as Maid Marion is Shley Snider, who lives in Canal Fulton and is making her Ohio Shakespeare Festival debut.

"Maid Marion," directed by Nancy Cates, is a swashbuckler rooted in classic literature, with a twist. Playwright Coon's goal was to refocus on the legendary story's female characters, whom audiences already know.

"It's great that we're writing more stories for women," said Coon, who said only half of Shakespeare's canon — including plays such as "Cymbeline," "As You Like It" and "Twelfth Night" — tells women's stories. "It's wonderful but it seems very unfair that for this huge chunk of time I guess we just don't get to do any of those really awesome, meaty roles because people didn't write for us for a very long time.''

"Maid Marion" eschews traditional gender roles by not having the women stay home cooking and cleaning for the fighting men: In this play, Merry Man David (Dimitri Georgiadis) is the one who enjoys cooking and doing laundry for the band of outlaws. He's also a fierce combatant who bests his comrades when they tease him about his domesticity by using the laundry to fight them.

 

'Yay women'

Tess Burgler researched play titles featuring strong female protagonists for two years before the Lady Disdain season was born, in Ohio Shakespeare Festival's fourth season operating indoors at Greystone Hall.

"We have basically really done Senor Disdain for the last 17 years'' since Ohio Shakespeare Festival was founded, "so why not do 'Lady Disdain'?" she asked. "It's not a 'screw men!' season. It's a 'yay women!' season."

The theme appears to be gaining attention: The company has already outsold all previous season subscription sales and will continue to sell through September.

The Ohio Shakespeare Festival has regendered some roles to give more women opportunities. Actress Holly Humes played a female Duke in "Measure for Measure" last month at Stan Hywet. There are also cross-gender roles for women, including in "Maid Marion," where actress Maya Nicholson plays Merry Man Arthur-A-Bland as a man.

Regendering and cross-gendering roles is a growing trend among Shakespeare companies internationally, Tess Burgler said.

"Everybody's doing it and everybody's saying do it more,'' she said. "It's no different from Shakespeare's company having men playing women."

Playing a male role for the first time in "The Three Musketeers" in 2017 changed Tess Burgler's life.

"When I got to play D'Artagnan and learned to sword fight I was thrilled and on a deep, profound level, I was angry ... I could have been doing this all along,'' she said. "Why did it take this long?"

"I believe very strongly if you are trying to break into something ... you don't just get in. You get in and hold the door open for the person behind you, and that's how you actually make the change."

In June, Tess Burgler, did a highly memorable turn as Hamlet for OSF's season opener at Stan Hywet. By doing so, she was continuing in the tradition of French actress Sarah Bernhardt and all the actresses since who have portrayed the prince.

Rather than playing "Princess Hamlet,'' she played the role as a man, wearing men's clothes. The actress, who also didn't change her voice, said having an actor who is obviously a woman play Hamlet illustrates "the spectrum that gender can be."

Now, Tess Burgler is one of the best fighters in the Ohio Shakespeare Festival Company, which is trained by fight director Ryan Zarecki. In "Maid Marion,'' she plays the male character the Captain, who leads the villainous Sir Stephen's guard.

At a recent "Maid Marion" rehearsal, Zarecki, who plays Robin Hood, created intricate fight choreography for the play's final scene in which Marion leads the charge to stop a forced wedding as all of the Merry Men are disguised as friars. In this climax, Zarecki set simultaneous fighting among nearly all cast members from numerous vantage points.

The next big female fighter will be featured in "She Kills Monsters,'' which will run Dec. 6-22. A record 100 women of every size, shape and color from as far away as Chicago showed up to audition for the 2011 play by Qui Nguyen.

"It was like female bad-ass town showed up,'' said director Tess Burgler, who auditioned many actresses she had never seen before.

Chicago actress Samantha Kaufman, well-known for stage fighting expertise, will star as Agnes in the show, which includes lots of fighting. The show was chosen for its strong female protagonist but is so popular on college campuses that it's also expected to draw younger audiences.

"It is the holy grail of female fight roles right now,'' Tess Burgler said.

 

From Joan to Sherlock

For Ohio Shakespeare bonus shows and extras this season, including "Dracula," "Frankenstein," "The Rocky Horror Show" and the visiting show "Cry Havoc," see www.ohioshakespearefestival.com.

Here are the other Lady Disdain season titles:

• "Saint Joan,'' by George Bernard Shaw, Feb. 29 to March 15, 2020.

"This is the quintessential most heroic of women warriors,'' said Cates, who will direct Tess Burgler in the role of the title character.

• "Miss Holmes,'' written by Chicago playwright Christopher Walsh, running April 17 to May 3, 2020, directed by Terry Burgler. Regendered characters Miss Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Dorothy Watson work together to uncover the secret surrounding a corrupt police inspector.

In this play about defying rigid gender norms, Watson can't get into the asylum to do her research because she's a woman.

For the brilliant Sherlock, "everything is 10 times harder for her to solve because she's a woman, and she still does it,'' Tess Burgler said.

 

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.