The Other Shakespeare Play I Saw In May
If I be waspish, best beware my sting.
When I was living in New York City, one of my roommates invited me to see a a friend of hers perform with Shakespeare Anywhere, which is an organization dedicated to performing Shakespeare—well—anywhere. The group we saw performed a couple of sonnets, monologues, and short dialogues.
One scene performed was Petruchio and Katherina’s first meeting in Act II, Scene 2 of The Taming of the Shrew. Once again, a Shakespeare play that I hadn’t read. And I was appalled. I hadn’t consider how sexist and misogynistic it could be. (Although afterwards I chided myself for being naive and not picking up on that.) The actors played the scene so straight that at the end I was sick to my stomach over how Petruchio treated Katherina.
1) it’s Maymont,
2) it’s Shakespeare,
3) and it’s free.
So off I went.
Quick synopsis: The Taming of the Shrew is the story of Katherina, who has gained a reputation of being a rather—ah—difficult woman. Her younger sister Bianca is the exact opposite of her. While Katherina wants nothing to do with men and marriage, Bianca is being actively pursued by pretty much every man in her city. However, the sisters’ father will not allow Bianca to marry until Katherina does. Thus, Bianca’s suitors conspire to find Katherina a husband. Petruchio takes the job after hearing of Katherina’s dowry. He then spends the rest of the play using reverse psychology to subdue Katherina into a dutiful and obedient wife.
The play was determined to win me over. It seemed to be more inspired by Kiss Me, Kate’s interpretation of the play than anything else.The chosen setting was a 1930s film set. Petruchio’s lackey Grumio was transformed into a hard talking, sassy female character, which made Petruchio’s decision to tame the shrew more interesting to me as it seemed he didn’t actually have a problem with strong women.
As a nod to the original play’s frame story format, there were two stories evolving on stage. One was Shakespeare’s, but the other involved the film’s leads confronting each other over wounded feelings and broken hearts. The scenes transitioned with the Director yelling Cut! and the actors hung about on the sides of the stage, flirting with each other and smoking cigarettes until they were needed. When it came time for Act IV, Scene 5, and Katherina to finally bow to Petruchio’s will, the actress and director both stopped and restarted the scene multiple times as the actress became distraught, eventually breaking down as she was overwhelmed by the disintegration of her marriage to the actor playing Petruchio.
I actually found this second story far more interesting than Shakespeare’s. It was very subtle and a bit voyeuristic. Only one of the actresses was named—Bianca was repeatedly referred to in between takes as “Bobbi”—and there wasn’t much background given, but the clues were all there. The actors playing Petruchio and Katherina were meant to be married and going through a separation. And while Katherina’s actress is the one to break down, she remains strong. The play ended with the film wrapped, and the cast and crew leaving for the wrap party. Katherina notices Petruchio doesn’t join them and returns, offering her husband her hand and leading him off stage.
The result of these two plays was that I was left with the impression that a good marriage wasn’t one where one spouse was subservient to another, but instead where the couple viewed each other as equals and partners. It undermined the misogynistic overtones of the play.
There were also a few things about the setting that made the play really fun. Katherina and Grumio spoke fast and hard, which was delightfully fun. It was like a mashup of Shakespeare and His Girl Friday. Contrasted with their portrayals was Bianca’s, who was more of a Lina Lamont type. It was also amusing to see how quickly the actors could flip between their Shakespearean characters and their 1930s counterparts.
In addition to this, during major scene changes, an actor would step off to the side to sing and distract the audience. Petruchio, Lucentio, and Tranio sang “Minnie the Moocher”, and the show ended with “Nice Work If You Can Get It”, which remained stuck in my head for days.
It was actually really funny and amusing. It still pushed my feminist buttons, but the frame story was satisfying.