Women taking on male Shakespeare roles is nothing new.
Wives or mothers – the traditional roles of women in society – are mirrored by the characters in Shakespeare's plays, with their power, if any, secondhand. Consider Lady Macbeth who prods her husband into violence to make her a queen, or sad Gertrude, mother of Hamlet, choosing her husband's murderer for the security of her throne. When British star Fiona Shaw broke the mold to portray Richard II in 1995, she created waves of controversy. Then American actress Olympia Dukakis took on the mad king in 1998 in "The Lear Project." Vanessa Redgrave played Prospero as a man, if somewhat gender-ambiguous, in "The Tempest" in 2000; however, with the 2011 filming of "Coriolanus," she was cast as her soldier-son's blood-thirsty mother, Volumnia, rather than the title role. In the 2010 film "The Tempest," Helen Mirren remained female as traditional Prospero was transformed into the majestic Prospera.
Given the possibilities, it's no wonder that the straight-talking, feisty Ms. Dukakis has also chosen to play the strong-willed, aged Prospero as Prospera in the playwright's late drama "The Tempest," at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass., through Aug. 19. Dukakis is appearing as the deposed ruler of Milan (see photo, Dukakis is in the center), who was set adrift in a boat with her daughter, Miranda, and exiled on a mysterious island. By the end of the play, Prospera declares, "I'll break my staff," which some consider a metaphor for Shakespeare announcing his retirement, but octogenarian Dukakis – a veteran actress like Ms. Shaw, Ms. Mirren, and Ms. Redgrave – does not seem ready to leave the stage.