The Taming of the Shrew
A Textual Perspective of Kate and Petruchio
Baltimore Shakespeare Factory, St. Mary's Community Center, Baltimore, Maryland
Friday, November 20, 2015, third pew of old church
Directed by Tom Delise
Petruchio (Ian Blackwell Rogers) encounters Katherina (Kathryn Zoerb) for the first time in the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory's production of William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. Below, Katie Ariyan as Grumio, one of six roles she undertook in one performance. Photos courtesy of the Baltimore Shakspeare Factor.
We've seen two highly conceptualized productions of William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew the past couple of weeks. Having just posted the second of those two reviews, I turn my comparative recollection to a bare-bones, original-production staging of the play we attended last November at the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory. My review of that production got waylaid in the shuffle of this mortal coil, but it is perfectly fitting to dust off my notes and post a write-up now as a comparison to the two Shrews currently running in Washington, D.C., and New York City.
Those two current productions have much in common but two significant differences. In common: both directors, Ed Sylvanus Iskandar helming the Shakespeare Theatre Company's (STC) production in Washington and Phyllida Lloyd directing the Public Theater's Free Shakespeare in the Park staging at the Delacorte Theater in New York's Central Park, view the play as intensely misogynist and sought to turn it toward a feminist viewpoint. Both use single-gender casting.
That's where the two productions significantly diverge. The STC's is an all-male cast because Iskandar believes no woman should ever have to suffer playing the role of Kate. Delving into the psychological aspects of being an "other" in a "homosocial environment" and inserting musical interludes, Iskandar gives us an overlong, underfunny, and ultimately sexist Shrew. Public's version uses an all-female cast because—well, why not? Contrary to Iskandar's view of feminism, Lloyd knows women can and are willing to play anything and everything. Setting the play in the context of the current U.S. presidential campaign and its sexist underpinnings and making significant cuts in the text, Lloyd gives us a swift-moving and rowdily funny Shrew.
The grand plan for Baltimore Shakespeare Factory Artistic Director Thomas Delise was just getting the play staged—especially on the evening we attended when an automobile accident earlier in the day sidelined one of the cast members. Casting was truly gender neutral because Delise has a limited pool of male actors to draw from. Women played men, some male characters became women, and everybody but Kathryn Zoerb, who played Katherina, doubled, tripled, quadrupled, or quintupled roles. Men did not play women, though Ian Blackwell Rogers playing Bartholomew, the lord's page in the Induction, had to don a dress and wig and pretend to be Sly's wife. The production's overriding concept was to stage the play in the manner Shakespeare's original company did, with a short rehearsal time, no set, universal lighting, and close quarters with the audience. Only the costuming—Italian Renaissance clothing by Costume Designer April Forrer—served as thematic trappings, and that merely setting the play in the time of its composition.
Most important, Delise and company hewed to the text, including keeping in the Induction, Shakespeare's framework device of a Warwickshire nobleman playing a joke on the drunk tinker Christopher Sly (Jessica Lynne Byars) by making him believe himself to be a lord (a troupe of traveling players present The Taming of the Shrew for Sly's benefit). Delise didn't layer on any conceptual trappings, and his actors barely had enough rehearsal time for psychoanalysis of their parts; the most they could do was play their lines on reaction to what they and others say. In this purely textual approach, the play does not come across as overly misogynist, nor does Katherina end up with a broken spirit.
"Our production refuses to accept the prevailing modern attitude that Shrew is anti-feminist," Delise writes in his program notes. "As a company that devotes itself to a strict interpretation of the text, BSF cannot deny the fact that some aspects of the gender relations displayed in the play are not acceptable to us today; however, it must also be noted that a close reading of what Shakespeare actually wrote does not warrant the virulent hatred directed against the play."
What they find, instead, is a love story, one that has a greater promise of succeeding beyond the play than any other coupling in Shakespeare (except perhaps that of another Katherine with Henry V—I'm not so sure Beatrice and Benedick will last). Pointing to one of The Taming of the Shrew's thematic strands about the difference between outward show and inner qualities, Delise notes that Petruchio and Katherina, see each other at their worst from the moment they meet (and marry) but ultimately appreciate how much they are suited to each other. "Theirs is the story of two people who come to realize they have much in common, and they come to accept one another for who they truly are," Delise writes. "That's amore!"
I would argue that Petruchio comes to that conclusion long before Katherina does. Indeed, while many productions I've seen have him fall in love with her at first sight, the American Shakespeare Company's 2015 production—using the same production and text-centric standards BSF adheres to—had Petruchio's passion aroused even before they meet, when he hears of Katherina's bashing her lute over Hortensio's head: "Now, by the world, it is a lusty wench. I love her ten times more than e'er I did." BSF's Blackwell Rogers, who played Petruchio (the same guy cast as the cross-dressing Bartholomew), isn't so sure. In a post-show talkback, answering a question from the audience about when they fall in love with each other, Blackwell Rogers replied that his Petruchio's moment of truth differed from performance to performance—but, inevitably, by the end, he is all hers.
Zoerb was more succinct in determining the moment her Kate falls in love. It comes in the tailor scene, Zoerb said, when Katherina complains to Petruchio, "Belike you mean to make a puppet of me." Petruchio turns the accusation onto the Tailor: "Why, true," Petruchio tells Katherina; "he means to make a puppet of thee." The Tailor corrects Petruchio—pointing out that Katherina was talking about Petruchio—upon which Petruchio roars, "O monstrous arrogance!" and begins his litany of tailor-made insults at the Tailor. Katherina "suddenly sees what he's doing," Zoerb said in the talk back: on the one hand, he is mimicking Katherina, reflecting her personality back on her; on the other hand, he is protecting her reputation in public.
It's a moment where she sees she can trust him, and at the point of Petruchio's sun and moon argument with her and greeting old Vincentio as a young maid, Zoerb's Katherina played along in a jesting mood. It perfectly sets up the final scene containing the wager on the wives' obedience. Mutual trust wins the bet.
Katherina's infamous final speech on obedience toward her husband continues the public show the couple are putting on for the rest of the crowd. Zoerb set the tone with the first line, directed at the Widow: "Fie, fie! Unknit that threatn'ning unkind brow." I.e., chill, lady: you are in a marriage, a love contract, a partnership based on mutual trust and respect that, if you play along, achieves a win-win outcome. Yes, mutual trust—he for her as much as he demands of her. "Thy husband…craves no other tribute at thy hands but love, fair looks, and true obedience," she says in the speech. Is she saying "true obedience" or "true obedience" or "TRUE obedience," or, perhaps, "TRUE obedience": true as opposed to enforced, obedience as opposed to bondage? We've seen an exercise in which six actors performed Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech from six totally different perspectives: the same could be done with Katherina's speech. Zoerb approached it as a woman in love with a husband who loves her, who respects her, and who has her back.
"Why, there's a wench!" Blackwell Rogers' Petruchio said admiringly. "Come on, and kiss me, Kate." Zoerb smiled and motioned that he come to her for the kiss, which he did. I've always been fascinated by the psychological and thematic sequencing of the "Kiss me, Kate" moments. The first is after their stormy first meeting when Petruchio insists on marrying her against her will; they exit "severally." The second is in the streets after they have returned to Padua. She demurs, "ashamed to kiss" in "the midst of the street," whereupon he insists on returning home, as he did when she insisted the sun was the sun and not the moon as he proclaimed. "Nay, I will give thee a kiss," she says; "now pray thee, love, stay." She calls him "love," and they exit together. The third is that at the end of her speech, after which they head to bed.
True, you could interpret this sequence as Petruchio breaking her will; however, only in modern, conceptualized interpretations does he do so (or she turns this moment into a cynical counterpunch). The text-centric presentations I've seen all come to the same conclusion: a happy, loving, mutually respectful marriage between Petruchio and Katherina. And, really, which is a truer reflection of normal human nature?
* * *
I could leave this discussion on that thematic note, but this production provided other interpretations worth mentioning, as well as one of the year's ascendant performances.
In the opening scene of the play proper, Lucentio (Alex Smith) and Tranio (Shannon Ziegler), newly arrived in Padua, watch as Baptista (Ben Fisler) announces to the suitors of Bianca (Tegan Williams) that she would not be married until Katherina is wedded first. In this scene, Williams' Bianca notices Lucentio, and they subtly flirt with each other, giving Lucentio further incentive to covertly court her. The actual plan for doing so—that Lucentio disguise himself as a tutor for Bianca while Tranio plays the part of Lucentio in his stead—is clearly manipulated by Tranio: Lucentio's assertion that he thought of it at the same time Tranio did is not convincing. As Ziegler plays him, Tranio's incentive is to enjoy the life of being Lucentio, and Ziegler is particularly funny in her Peter Pan boldness playing the young master.
Byars, who plays the drunk Sly, also plays the Pedant as drunk. Williams is a very drunk Bianca at her wedding feast, and as her ramblings take on increasingly vulgar associations, Katherina and the Widow come to her rescue by bustling her offstage to the parlor, setting up the wager among the husbands to send for their wives.
As part of BSF's original production standards, cast members play popular music before the play and during the intermission. The playlist for this Taming of the Shrew was particularly apt:
- Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love"
- Bon Jovi's "You Give Love a Bad Name"
- No Doubt's "Just a Girl"
- The Lumineers' "Ho Hey"
- The Rascals' "Good Lovin'"
- Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger"
- The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go"
- Graham Nash's "Teach Your Children"
- The Proclaimers' "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)."
However, the element of this production that lingers as a fond memory well beyond what I chronicled in my notes was a standard of acting quite against its will. Sadie Angel Lockhart was the actress knocked out of performing that night due to an auto accident (fortunately, her injuries were not serious). She was cast in four roles: Biondello, a player and a servant in the Induction, and Petruchio's briefly seen servant Nathaniel. Other cast members easily absorbed three minor roles, but for Biondello, Lucentio's second servant, Delise decided to split the part among three actors not normally on stage during Biondello's scenes. They would have script in hand and, rather than changing costumes, wear a sign identifying them as Biondello.
The bulk of Biondello's lines therefore fell to Katie Ariyan, who already was playing Grumio and Vincentio (and also a player and serving man in the Induction and Petruchio's servant Nicholas). She scored as a gruff, easily confused Grumio, and, using a Coney Island accent, in playing old Vincentio as a whining senior citizen of the boardwalk benches. But it was the subtle inflections of her Biondello, a clown using a faux sophisticate's non sequiturs to baffle the other characters, that had the audience in stitches with almost every line she spoke, even though she was referring to a script and, a close friend of Lockhart's, performing under duress. Not only was Ariyan's performance courageous, it was hugely entertaining, too.
June 14, 2016