“Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender

Created and performed by Lisa Wolpe
Directed by Laurie Woolery

Ashland, OR at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival March 21 – May 4, 2024

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Lisa Wolpe’s one-person performance weaves together her work to have women perform the meaty (male) Shakespeare characters with revelations from her personal background in an incredibly strong, nuanced, and broad show. I walked away from the evening admiring her as a person for her socially important efforts while also deeply appreciative of her professional talent.

Lisa Wolpe in "Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender". Photo by Jenny Graham.

Lisa Wolpe in “Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender”. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Every moment on stage has a point. The speeches from Shakespeare or from her relatives or from herself are flawlessly curated to both engage, amuse, and enlighten.

She has definite points to make – a righteous agenda. However, the mixture and delivery of the messages are so well crafted that you’re easily taken in by the surface artistry so that the deeper meaning effortlessly seeps into your mind as that scenes move along.

Lisa grabs your attention initially by mixing lines from Hamlet (“To be, or not to be…”) with a horror list of her relatives, including her father, that chose suicide. 

The show itself she dedicates to her father, Hans Wolpe. Her mother initially told Lisa that dad died when his gun went off accidently. As a young girl a friend started laughing at the improbably accident story and Lisa realized that her father killed himself. Much later in life she learned what her father did during World War II and how his eventual suicide was the result of war-time trauma. She brings us along in her learning of her father’s heroic exploits, but the pathway to knowing more about Hans is appropriately littered with emotion and uncomfortableness.

She talks about how alchemy shifts heavy matters into magical ones. In her life she shifts a female presentation to male. 

Lisa Wolpe in "Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender"

Lisa Wolpe in “Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender”. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Early on she learns that being female disadvantages you. She learns to act more like her brother to escape an abusive, alcoholic step-father. Then as a professional actor she discovers how many more lines the men in Shakespeare have then do the women. She explores her gender shifting and gets the audience to ponder how universal pandering to men really is.

So much of her life has reality bending episodes, and she shares the details so well. The story of her father’s wartime work follows an out-of-the-blue phone call from a rabbi who invites Catholic Lisa to a reunion of her Jewish Wolpe family. How she gets so many bizarre details to strengthen her coherent story is its own alchemy.

Throughout the 90-minute show Lisa blends the delivery of Tony-worthy Shakespeare monologues with comments directly to you in the audience. One of my favorite shifts between character and conversationalist was after her delivery of a Richard III monologue. She gave a lengthy Richard speech about his intent to molest (mmmm…. marry) a 13-year-old. She walked around the stage with a limp and crippled arm and snarly tone. When the speech was done, she spent a moment on stage shaking herself, straightening her crippled limb and gradually starting to smile engagingly at the crowd.

Lisa Wolpe in "Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender". Photo by Jenny Graham.

Lisa Wolpe in “Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender”. Photo by Jenny Graham.

You are entertained, you are educated, you are given STUFF to think about. The show is polished, professional, and complete. You honor her and her father and family with a standing ovation.

Then, if you stay, Lisa comes back onstage for a 15-minute Q&A session where you can ask her anything. Her consistency, honesty, and seeming spontaneity are terrific add-ons to the show.

This performance with personal details blended with gender truths is a remarkable event to experience.  Lisa definitely rates   5 out of 5 Syntaxes

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2 Responses to “Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

  1. Lisa Wolpe says:

    What a lovely writeup! If you can possibly correct the spelling of my last name to Wolpe I would be very grateful! xoLisa

    • Galen Workman says:

      I am very sorry for the initial misspelling (“Volpe”). I blame my childhood in Massachusetts with Governor Volpe for the deed.
      I have corrected it.

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