Thursday, May 13, 2010

Chicago Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew"

I've been hearing good things about Chicago Shakespeare Theater for years, from a co-director of the multi-university endeavor that has more-or-less subsumed my professional life these last two years. When a project meeting was scheduled in Chicago this month, I arranged to come in early enough to catch the company's current production, The Taming of the Shrew.

This is not an easy play for a modern audience. The essentials: Katherina suffers no fools, and for her take-no-prisoners sharpness is shunned by the smarmy men panting over her compliant younger sister, Bianca. Not that she'd have any of them in the first place. Their father won't consider a suitor for Bianca until a husband is found for Katherina. Yet finding a husband for Katherina is impossible for the gentlemen of Padua to imagine ... until Petruchio comes to town, looking to score a major league dowry. Petruchio claimes wholesale indifference to the looks, nature, quirks, habits, wishes, or internal life of any woman through whom he can score the big bucket o' ducats. Long story short, Petruchio marries Katharina then subjects her to a harrowing regimen of humiliation, sleep deprivation, near starvation, and emotional terrorism. He's a first class prick, an Elizabethan Dick Cheney, yet the story of how he breaks Kate's will is meant to move the audience to laughter and cheer: the play is classified among Shakespeare's comedies. Go figure.

A modern company would want to take care presenting Shrew to modern theatre subscribers. Staged straight up, the play is likely to raise the hackles of pretty much anyone who holds women and men to be equals. In the text, Petruchio treats Katherina as hardly-human. His brutishness is revealed when the gold digger brags to their wedding party of how low he holds his bride:
I will be master of what is mine own
She is my goods, my chattels, she is my house,
My household stuff, my field, my barn,
My horse, my ox, my ass, my any thing

Her life goes downhill from the moment Petruchio 'acquires' Katherina. The play ends with a speech that shows unmistakable signs of Stockholm syndrome: Katherina calls on all women to forfeit the independence that Petruchio cruelly stripped from her.
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word and frown for frown;
But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.
Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband's foot;
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready, may it do him ease.

In Shakespeare's text, the story in Padua is framed by another that takes place in Elizabethan England: for sport, a drunken tinker named Christopher Sly is dressed in a Lord's robes and the story just summarized is performed for his amusement.

Chicago Shakespeare's production replaces the Sly frame with the messy lives of the actors and crew performing the play. The conceit is that the audience is watching a technical rehearsal for a production that will soon open, affording an excuse to interleave the body of the play with the actors' antics. The actress who plays Katherina and the woman directing the company are lovers-in-crisis. When the women cast as the two sisters make out during a break from the tech rehearsal -- and the director witnesses her partner's flirtation with a young and flighty actress who plays a flighty younger sister -- the modern lovers' struggle becomes counterpoint and commentary on relationships in Shakespeare's Shrew.

If 'breaking the fourth wall' describes an actor speaking directly to an audience, this production rips away the set, elevating the players' story to the same prominence as the drama they perform. Discord between women who have removed themselves altogether from intimacy with men is set against rough relations between the sexes in sixteenth century Padua. The modern-day director uses her authority in the production as an instrument of retaliation, amping up Katherina's humiliation at Petruchio's hands to levels that her lover, playing the role, can hardly tolerate.

(Spoiler alert!)

The tension between Shakespeare's drama and the production's frame culminates at the end of Katharina's final speech, when she lays her hand on the stage to enact the gesture of submission just spoken. As heavily-shod Petruchio approaches, marveling at his own success in mastering his headstrong bride, the actress playing dutiful Kate can take it no longer. She breaks character, loudly declares that she's through with the play, and marches off -- audience cheering, of course, that she has refused the role to which the bard's text relegates its women -- be it seriously or as farce.

In a theatre whose courtyard architecture echoes the rebuilt Globe in London, on a vigorously clean set, ebulliently costumed, and lustily played, this production is a terrific success. If you live in Chicago, get thee to Navy Pier by June 6th.


Thanks to Open Shakespeare for text quoted from The Taming of the Shrew.

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