A Triumph of Will in ‘Gender Play’ at About Face Theatre

The first part of the ritual was the coat. Black, regal, with safety pins up and down the lapels that made me feel like I was one of Shakespeare’s youths bursting at the seams with ambition. My outfit was freshly plucked off of the costume rack next to the Bookspan, like my fellow audience members. Leathers, vests, and even a sequined battle helmet complete with a blonde braid peppered the crowd. It was costume designer Uriel Gomez’s way of inviting the audience into the world of lush fabrics and textures that make up much of the world of Gender Play, or what you Will. 

The second part of the ritual was the tarot card. From the twenty-two cards that comprise the Major Arcana spread across the table in the dark hall, I first selected Strength, feeling the edges of the sturdy paper in my hand. I then eyed The Hanged Woman, suspended before a state of transformation – Death. I had drawn both cards just hours before. I took them both into the theatre. 

The third part of the ritual was Will. Drifting out from the wings like Ophelia, utterly fixated on their private thoughts, Will Wilhelm, co-creator of Gender Play, or What You Will, enters the playing space. A hush fell over the crowd, as we recited the mantra “my bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep,” from Romeo and Juliet

Steven Abbot’s set contains several pieces of timeless vintage furniture, and mannequins in varying states of dress. Will climbs onto one of the dressers, rings a bell, and proceeds to welcome the audience into their Shakespeare-driven “personal genderqueer fantasia.”  Shakespeare and the Tarot, Will tells us, both contain archetypes to be interpreted with a present-day sensibility, and are mainly studied by a small group of fascinated dedicants. 

Will embodies humor and grace as they assure the audience this is not some “Cher moment” where they will force us to watch them do all the parts at once. After an easy opening monologue filled with laughs and consensual audience participation, we learn this experience is to be an exercise of what we can learn about ourselves – the marginalized for whom Shakespeare actually wrote – by placing our hearts and bodies at the center of Shakespeare’s stories. After years of allowing characters to possess them, Will has vowed to fill characters with their own human experience. It was at this point I noticed the skull, an homage to Hamlet’s Poor Yorick, covered in sequins. One of many slick and stunning offerings in Lonnae Hickman’s prop design. 

The fourth part of the ritual was the summoning. The summoning of our will to participate and suspend our disbelief, and perhaps the summoning of the spirit of the real William Shakespeare, too. Inside this well-crafted opening ritual is a moment of magic that I will not spoil – a collaboration between from Steven Abbott’s glamorous set, and Gabrielle Strong’s creative and efficient lighting. It is then that the show flies. 

Today’s artists are using the things they learned about their intuition, inspiration, and spiritual practices in the past few years, and weaving them into their work. Will is no exception, to much success. Shakespeare used archetypes to reveal the nature of being, and Will instructs us that tarot can serve a similar purpose. The Fool in tarot can be related directly to Shakespeare’s Clowns – someone beginning a new journey. Will Wilhelm constructs a story about constraint, evolution, freedom, and queerness using the text of Shakespeare’s greatest characters and sonnets, and live tarot. 

The work onstage reminded me of the studies of alchemy, and the idea of a Great Work, or a Magnum Opus. A Magnum Opus, such as the Philosopher’s Stone, is said to be an outer representation of the perfection of the inner spirit. In Gender Play, Will lets us into their inner spiritual work, and supplements it with an outer working – the show and ritual they’ve created for us. It’s a delicious look into the crucible of their being. 

Will’s performance is a glimmering tour de force through some of Shakespeare’s most compelling characters and real-life lovers. Wilhelm spins a tale that crescendos in not only their self-realization, but our own. Each of the characters that Will embodies is given a well-crafted preamble of original text that functions as a queer context for Shakespeare’s characters. Wilhelm uses these monologues as a launchpad to seamlessly rip through time’s atmosphere and jump into the corresponding classical text. 

Dramaturg Linnea Valdivia’s program note explains that queer can be a verb, to look at something from a different angle, “put it through a prism, and marvel at the beautiful rainbow of its refractions.” I agree with this delightful definition – to queer something is also to look at something without the assumption of heteronormativity.

Glittering under the chandeliers and disco balls, Will invites the audience to re-introduce ourselves to William Shakespeare, to release our assumptions and stretch our imaginations. What if Juliet was driven not by lust but by a thirst for agency, and Romeo was the only person who saw her for who she was? The story of being seen for who you are by the right person at the right time in a way that drastically changes your life, is one that easily transfers to the transgender and nonbinary experience. Wilhelm’s interpretation and powerful portrayal of Juliet sees her chasing autonomy and choice, or, what Romeo represents more than Romeo himself, to the very end. 

Gender Play, or what you Will is an exuberant celebration of the potential of storytelling, filled with decadent costume reveals, surprise dance parties, a robust mastery of Shakespeare’s work, and the talent that is Will Wilhelm. Director Erin Murray has created a marvelous playground for Will Wilhelm’s solo piece. The treat of this is that Will is truly an excellent Shakespeare actor. The magnitude of their voice, the precision of their cadence, and the intricacy of their emotional life as an actor are really what drive the production. 

At one point during the piece, Will asked us what potential a Gender-Full world might contain? This term came about during Will Davis’ production of As You Like It at La Jolla Playhouse, defined as a world full of the complexity of gender, in opposition to gender-blind, which can create a space devoid of gender. The reference touched me, not because I dramaturg’d that production, but because in this piece, in this assertion of sheer will, the term Gender-Full was entirely their own. 

Shakespeare was known for contributing over 1700 words to the English language. This moment was inspiring to me, and reminds me that trans artists can create communal language and use it to forward our artistic and intellectual lineages, just like Shakespeare did. Gender Play or what you Will firmly places Will Wilhelm in a legacy of talented trans performers reclaiming the classics as their own. I leave you with the same question that lingered in my mind after seeing the show: if you could will anything into existence, with no limits, what would it be? 

Gender Play, or what you Will runs at The Den Theatre until June 3.

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Co-Created by Will Wilhelm and Erin Murray
Directed by Erin Murray
Performed by Will Wilhelm
Will U/S – Jonathan Moises Olivares
Dramaturgy – Linnea Valdivia
Text Coach – Kathryn Walsh
Casting Director – Catherine Miller
Scenic Designer – Steven Abbott
Lighting Designer – Gabrielle Strong
Sound Design & Composition – Trqpiteca
Costume Designer – Uriel Gomez
Properties Designer – Lonnae Hickman
Lead Electrician – Kieran O’Connor
Stage Manager – Lucy Whipp
Asst. Stage Manager – Anna Margevich

Photo of Will Wilhelm by Michael Brosilow

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