At the end of “Merely Players,” protagonist Phebe addresses the audience:

“Women, I hope you liked this show. Men, I don’t care if you liked this show. If you don’t know what you are, keep looking.”

Although the statement comes at the end of the show, the feminist themes of the production are obvious to audiences from the very beginning – as should be the case in an all-female-produced play.

“Merely Players,” the newest production by the Jayhawk Initiative for Student Theatre, opens tonight at the William Inge Memorial Theatre in Murphy Hall. The play, based on an early-17th-century classic, modernizes a tale of romance and self-discovery through progressive themes and casting.

This continuation of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” follows shepherd-girl Phebe and her struggle to discover who she is. After falling in love with Rosalind, a woman dressed in drag in Shakespeare’s original story, student playwright Katherine Gywnn’s Phebe must come to terms with her feelings for Rosalind as well as her place in a male-dominated world.

“This is not a play written for men,” Gywnn, a senior from Olathe, said. “This is not a play written for a male’s gaze. I hope that men can still enjoy it and find something in it, because I think it’s a beautiful human narrative, but this is a play that really centers around women.”

In the spirit of that message, the playwright, director and cast of “Merely Players” are all females. Lynn Deboeck, a doctoral student from Vienna, Va., directs the play. Actors Emily Schwerdtfeger, Brianna Woods and Caroline Collett, a junior from Marion, play both female and male characters, adding a feminine dynamic to a story originally performed by only men.

“It ensures that it comes from a female perspective,” Schwerdtfeger, a sophomore from Columbus, Ohio, said. “No matter what character is being played, what lines are being said, it’s been thought about by a team of women.”

For Woods, the collaboration between such a group of “smart and capable” women has only strengthened the show.

“I think we’ve all worked really hard to make a safe place,” said Woods, a sophomore from Overland Park. “It’s basically like a big workshop and collaboration between the five of us. We all have similar viewpoints, so that makes it easy for us to construct the show that we want.”

In addition to female empowerment in a male-dominated world, the play deals with the topic of sexuality and gender identification as characters Phebe and Rosalind struggle to clarify their feelings for each other. Although this relationship is present in Shakespeare’s original story, “Merely Players” emphasizes the confusion and difficulty in a way not possible in Shakespeare’s time.

“Identifying with gender and sexuality is still a big issue [today],” Schwerdtfeger said. “I think people aren’t comfortable with those who don’t identify as heterosexual or the gender they were born into. I think this deals with these issues in a way that helps people understand why people are confused about their sexuality or confused about their gender."

Although the themes originate in Shakespeare’s time, the play has a modern twist. Starting out with the original epilogue from “As You Like It,” the language of the play quickly shifts from poetic prose to modern dialogue. Combined with the emphasis on modern ideas and issues, Gywnn said she hopes her new storytelling will draw in viewers from all backgrounds.

“Whether you’re interested in questions about gender and sexuality, in seeing a play that really renders queer women in a complex way, in seeing a show that talks about what it’s like to be caught in a cycle of abuse, or whether you’re just really interested in seeing a great show, I hope you would consider coming out to see this play,” she said.

“Merely Players” runs at 7:30 p.m. today, Monday and Tuesday at the William Inge Memorial Theatre in Murphy Hall. The show is free, and donations are appreciated.

 

— Edited by Mackenzie Clark