by wjw on July 14, 2008

The theater festival we attended last week was a Shakespearean festival rather than a Shakespeare festival. By which I understand that the events were not Shakespeare, but somehow like Shakespeare. Stratford, Oregon, Los Angeles, and Tulane have Shakespeare festivals. Utah is alone in being Shakespearean.

If the festival was Shakespeare-like, it was fortunately not Shakespeare Lite. Except, of course, when it needed to be.

I had some apprehensions about seeing Taming of the Shrew. It is as much a minefield as a play— even in Elizabethan times the play’s attitudes toward gender were considered fairly Neanderthal, as evidenced by John Fletcher’s attempt to right the balance in a sequel, The Tamer Tamed. (Has anyone seen it? Read it?)

G.B. Shaw wrote, ‘No man with any decency of feeling can sit it out in the company of a woman without being extremely ashamed of the lord-of-creation moral implied in the wager and the speech put into the woman’s own mouth.’

Well indeed, yes. So how to play it? You can bury the invidious message beneath slapstick. You can play the ending straight, which implies that Kate is not so much tamed as broken, or brainwashed. Or you can play it ironically, which can be comforting to modern sensibilities but also subversive of the play.

I had seen the Taylor/Burton/Ziffereli version (ghastly), the “twinkly” Raul Julia/Meryl Streep version (broad comedy), the “non-twinkly” Jonathan Miller production for the BBC (earnest and dullish), and a recent stage version which attempted to avoid the minefields altogether by making the whole play a dream by the drunken Christopher Sly, the character seen in the play’s induction and never seen again.

Utah’s production was set in 1947 during the American occupation, with Petruchio as a GI in search of a war bride. This was a problem for some of the patrons, who want their Shakespeare in tights and pumpkin hats and nothing else. (I noticed that there were a lot fewer complains after the play than before— the general excellence of the production convinced many of the skeptics.)

In short, it was the best Shrew I have seen. It was a full-on comic version, with Christopher Sly and many other subplots trimmed.

The director, Jane Page, did a very intelligent thing by providing sound and light cues when lovers first locked eyes with one another. When Kate and Petruchio first saw each other, a plangent chord told you that they’d fallen in love, and you knew that everything was going to be all right.

Shakespeare tells us that in the wedding scene Petruchio and his valet dress inappropriately. I doubt that he had drag in mind. I didn’t think it added much to the production until it was pointed out to me that Petruchio was dressed as a parody of Kate, and his bullying behavior in the following scenes was meant to reflect Kate’s behavior back to her.

In the play, Petruchio mentions that he’s been a soldier. Soldiers train recruits by marching them up and down mountains, throwing them in the mud, and depriving them of comforts and food, which is what Petruchio does to Kate. By the morning after the wedding, Kate was dressed in Army fatigues and snapping out ironic salutes.

It might not have worked if the leads didn’t have such strong chemistry. Their mutual charisma tended to float them harmlessly over the play’s minefields.

Kate’s final speech— “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee . . . ” —was performed straight, though with a little twinkle toward Petruchio that suggested that this might be a game they would play together. And right at the end Petruchio makes a gesture— (it’s not original to this production, though even so I’m reluctant to put a spoiler here) — anyway, the gesture saves the play, and him. The cast and crew then sing and dance along with Dean Martin in “That’s Amore,” a song guaranteed to send everyone out of the theater in a good mood. And that was that. Minefields avoided, mostly.

Except for the next morning’s ideologue who complained about Kate showing too much skin as she was changing into her fatigues. Who also complained about Julia showing too much skin in “Two Gentlemen.” And who may have been the same ideologue— I’m not sure— who complained about the vile sexist attitudes of the characters in Moliere’s “School for Wives,” without noticing that the play is a vicious satire of those attitudes. (A good production, with Timothy Casto as Arnolphe twitching and mugging and generally stealing the show as one disastrous revelation after another drop like anvils on his head.)

Next day was “Fiddler on the Roof”— the festival always does at least one musical. A quite sumptuous production, with tunes that I’ve been unable to get out of my head in the days since. Topped by “Othello,” which benefitted greatly from a strong Othello, a strong Amelia, and a strong Desdemona— who was also very good as a headstrong teenage Julia in “Two Gentlemen.” It took me a while to warm up to the Iago— his scenes with Othello were terrific, but I didn’t care for his scenes with anyone else. Weird, that.

By the second day I’d figured out that all the plays were about relationships in which one person is trying to control the other, all with varying success.

All, I guess, very Shakespeare-like.

David W. Goldman July 15, 2008 at 7:16 am

When Kate and Petruchio first saw each other, a plangent chord told you that they’d fallen in love, and you knew that everything was going to be all right.

Yes! The best Shrew I’ve seen also did this. (Well, no plangent chord — the expressions on the two actors’ faces sufficed.) Their mutual love-at-first-sight gave new meaning to everything that followed, including Kate’s final speech.

Kelly July 15, 2008 at 7:38 pm

A few years ago Alyx and I saw The Taming of the Shrew played straight by the local (excellent) college drama program.

It was the most shocking and disturbing piece of theatre I’ve ever seen. The broken/brainwashing of Kate was just horrible to see. So horrible, in fact that I was wondering whether they should have done it. But after the fact, after the shock has worn off, I just think it was terribly brave of them.

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