Kate Eastwood Norris and Holly Twyford have played it all at the Folger Theatre — women, men, fairies and even animals. Once Twyford played Crab, a dog belonging to Norris’s clownish character in Shakespeare’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona.”
Queens, though — that’s new.
As Friedrich Schiller’s “Mary Stuart” opens Jan. 27 in a new adaptation by Peter Oswald, Norris has the title role opposite Twyford’s Queen Elizabeth. Neither actress can recall playing a queen before.
“I’ve played many women who thought they were,” Norris says.
The scarcity of power female roles was highlighted in Ida Prosky’s book “You Don’t Need Four Women to Play Shakespeare,” which took its title from a casting director’s snide comment about how to run a classical company. Yet Norris and Twyford have bucked the trend, especially at the Folger. In addition to playing the staples from Juliet to Lady Macbeth, they’ve each had a piece of Hamlet. Norris even played Richard III.
In Washington, director Lise Bruneau and the Riot Grrrls wing of the Taffety Punk Theatre Company have made an annual habit of all-female Shakespeare; their “Tempest” starts Feb. 5 at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. Lisa Wolpe’s Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company has been producing since 1993.
But Norris and Twyford say those kinds of initiatives are as rare as landing an off-the-nose role.
“It takes convincing on my part, and a director who knows me,” Norris says. “Actors can play things they’re not. We’re playing queens right now, and we’re certainly not queens. But for some reason there’s this huge barrier: Women cannot play men. I think it’s absurd.”
Characters they want to play? Hamlet. Iago in “Othello.” Cassius in “Julius Caesar.” Prince Hal in “Henry IV.” “I want to say those words,” Norris says. “They [men] get to say all those words.”
Both performers are comfortable in contemporary plays: Norris was part of the slangy ensemble in Aaron Posner’s “Stupid F-ing Bird” at Woolly Mammoth, where she is a company member, and Twyford just played an emerging novelist in Laura Eason’s new two-character drama “Sex With Strangers” at Signature Theatre.
But, Twyford says, “you cannot get away from the fact that if you really want to take a bite out of some awesome text, you have to do some classical pieces.”
Sitting together in Folger offices across the street from the theater after a recent “Mary Stuart” rehearsal, the actors looked back at some of their roles at the Folger:
“RICHARD III” (1998), presented by Shenandoah Shakespeare Express.
Twyford: The first play I ever saw Kate do was when she played Richard III.
Norris: It spoiled me forever. . . .
Twyford: It was mind-blowing.
Norris: That company just went on the original practice thing of men playing women, and then just went ahead and said, well, women can play men.
“TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA” (2004). Norris played Launce and Twyford played Speed, two servants, and Twyford also played Launce’s dog, Crab.
Twyford: We pretended that Speed and Launce were women.
Norris: Well, they had no sex at all. They were just asexual goons.
Twyford: I had never played a clown role before. So I took a lot of cues from Kate.
Norris: That’s the great thing about playing clowns is that the smallest thing becomes so huge. Just being in a new place is like, “WOW!” When we got to Milan: “WOW!” As opposed to, “I am now in Milan. Hmm.”
“HAMLET” (1998). Director Joe Banno split Hamlet into four parts for four actors: Eye, Tongue and Sword, and the main Hamlet. The idea came from a speech of Ophelia’s: “Oh, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown! The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword.” Norris was Sword, and Twyford was Hamlet.
Norris: I heard from so many teachers that it was so illustrative of what is happening in that brain. What is warring in him is so intense — intellectual, philosophical, little boy and all the other things Hamlet is. To stand on one side of Holly and be like, “Do it! Do it!” I was Sword, so I was just like, “Pick one!”
Twyford: It was remarkable to have somebody speaking your thoughts, to let that in and have it be the stimulus.
Norris: It makes sense why inaction was the result, because we were trying our hardest to convince you.
“MACBETH” (2008). Directed by Aaron Posner and Teller of Penn and Teller. Norris played Lady Macbeth.
Norris: There was so much magic in the production that when it came time for me, I automatically assumed that Lady Macbeth would be manipulating dark forces. But they said, “No — you’re just a normal person.” The magic was everywhere but in me, almost. We were a true loving married couple, and I wanted Macbeth to succeed because I felt he deserved it, not because I would get things from it. That allowed a real loving relationship.
THE HEROINES: Twyford has played Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet” (1997), Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing” (1998), Rosalind in “As You Like It” (2001) and Helena in “All’s Well That Ends Well” (2003). Norris also played Beatrice in “Much Ado” (2005), and in the 2003 “Twelfth Night” Norris was Olivia to Twyford’s Viola.
Twyford: What they say about Juliet sometimes is that when you’re old enough to really understand Juliet, you’re too old to play her. I would love to get another stab at Rosalind, because she’s brilliant.
Norris: Psychologically, I’m interested in Rosalind also. If I could do it again, I would be so much more surprised by what’s coming out of my mouth sometimes. And then having to be responsible for what came out of my mouth.
Twyford: “All’s Well” is a hard bloody play. The language is really hard. “Romeo and Juliet,” the language is exquisite, but kind of simple. I think that’s why a lot of people love it so much. “All’s Well’s” language is not as simple. And it’s up there with “that-would-never-happen-these-days,” and “why does she still like him” — things like that.
Norris: The heroines to me are awesome. And the ones that aren’t as interesting aren’t heroines. You’re just a woman.
“A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM” (2006) and “THE TEMPEST” (2000). Norris played Puck, the magical assistant to the fairy king Oberon in “Midsummer,” and she played Caliban, the crude native of the island where the magical Prospero has been stranded with his daughter, Miranda, in “Tempest.”
Norris: Puck started out as Marlene Dietrich, and then it just moved into goofball in pajamas. It feels so good to spread joy. Spreading joy is one of my favorite things to do. And it’s underrated. Comedy is never as important as serious theater.
Twyford: Nor do people appreciate how f---ing hard it is. People think you’re just —
Norris: Foolin’ around.
[As Caliban] I was a female, which was not what I was expecting. I thought I’d be a creature. I was dressed in hankies and this distressed if-Reba-McIntyre-was-in-a-hurricane type of wig. I was a nasty, nasty, nasty girl.
“THE TAMING OF THE SHREW” (2012). Norris played Kate the shrew on tour with the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, then played Petruchio — Kate’s tamer — in an all-female production for the Washington Shakespeare Company (now WSC Avant Bard), and in 2012 she played Kate again in a Wild West staging at the Folger that featured Twyford as the servant Tranio. (Both were nominated for Hayes Awards; the show itself took the prize as Outstanding Resident Play in 2013.)
Norris: I had played Kate on tour with Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, and I had many ideas about how Petruchio should be played. Then I played Petruchio for WSC. Yet I was playing Petruchio as a woman who was playing a man. So I was always a woman. However. What that did for me was have me enjoy the freedom that women must have felt playing Petruchio. Then to go back to playing Kate was a downer, honestly, because I wanted to play Petruchio. He’s so much more fun!
Norris: I’m really excited to play Gertrude.
Twyford: I want to play Gertrude, too. I could be Hamlet, and you could be Gertrude, and then you could be Hamlet and I could be Gertrude. We could switch off.
Norris: I’m trying to look ahead. I see Gertrude.
Twyford: I see male roles [laughter].
Norris: Seriously . . . yeah.
Mary Stuart by Friedrich Schiller, in a new version by Peter Oswald. Jan. 27-March 8 at the Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. NE. Tickets: $40-$75. 202-544-7077. www.folger.edu.