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The Taming of the Shrew

Subversive Misogyny in an All-Male Casting

Shakespeare Theatre Company, Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, D.C.
Tuesday, May 24, 2016, R–101&102 (rear orchestra)
Directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar

The lobby of the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Sidney Harman Hall turns into a marketplace for crafts, arts, and artisan foods and chocolates. The cast of William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, in costume, mill about, talking with patrons (not necessarily as their characters—more portraying actors preparing to play characters). There is music and dancing, even out on the street. All of which is pretty cool.

All of which makes the production itself all the more confoundingly disappointing.

Kate in silvery ball gown and crown-like hat with left hand on hip, Petruchio in oeralls, t-shirt and holding his antler helmet and tarp for a cloak as he reaches his gloved hand to her
Kate (Maulik Pancholy, left) looks with disdain at Petruchio (Peter Gadiot) upon his arrival for their wedding in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's all-male-cast production of William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. Photo by Scott Suchman, Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar's deeply psychological approach to the play collides with the play's comic substance, and he envelops the proceedings in an overriding sense of hipness though the staging is undermined by its own insidious misogyny. The result is an overlong, overblown, and mostly unfunny rendering of Shakespeare's play—well, not Shakespeare's play but a noncredited adaptation. When I say it's as funny as a heart attack, I'm not engaging in either hyperbole or metaphor—this production relies on a fatal heart attack for its biggest laugh (who dies from a heart attack in Shrew, you ask?).

Iskandar is one of the hot young directors transforming theatrical arts into a more participatory community experience. He brings that asthete to his production of The Taming of the Shrew by turning the lobby into an Italian "Piazza D'Amore," with market stalls, foods (though not really anything you can eat on the spot, except for the chocolates and the Harman Hall's bar snacks), and a partying atmosphere. Additionally, the theater is offering a series of "Padua Finishing School" classes in conjunction with the play's run covering topical lectures as well as lessons on self-care, weaving, wedding skills, and making everything from beaded necklaces and paper cut-outs to perfume and cocktails. The production's 30-minute intermission is recast as an "intermezzo," giving the audience an opportunity to go up on stage as the cast plays music. Jason Sherwood's set, with a tri-level structure of metal poles, stairways, and doors as its centerpiece, extends over the audience with festive strings of lights and paper globes. The action in the play also spills into the auditorium, and characters often employ direct address with the audience.

All well intentioned—but none of this resonates quite as intended. Even on opening night with an audience of invited guests, most of the hubbub in the piazza is piped in through the speakers. During the intermission, the audience sits on the periphery of the stage while most of the actors contain themselves inside the middle structure. This contrasts with two other times I've partied on stage, once during the intermission of Godspell in Cambridge, England, and once at the party hosted by Timon of Athens at Chicago Shakespeare, and in both instances we mingled and drank with the cast (Godspell) or with the characters (Timon).

Encompassing the audience during performance is always a great thing. However, Iskandar chooses one notable moment to not employ the technique: the play's one soliloquy, Petruchio describing his strategy for taming Kate. Instead, Petruchio (Peter Gadiot) relates all this to his household staff in a huddle. This staging is in itself not an unworthy option; it's just odd that Iskandar sidesteps one of the play's integral audience-encompassing moments in a production that otherwise goes to great lengths to, allegedly, make the audience feel more involved. It's one of a series of conflicting choices he makes in staging The Taming of the Shrew that, instead, leaves the audience feeling confused.

Causes for such confusion are myriad. Least among them, ironically, is using an all-male cast. Iskandar's stated reason for doing so is to get the audience beyond the debate prevailing over the degree of Petruchio's misogyny, Kate's subjugation, and Bianca's motivations. Instead of a tale of gender politics (or, a simple romping comedy about love and marriage), Iskandar approaches The Taming of the Shrew from the perspective of being an "other" in society. "I understood who I was—my class, gender, diversity, sexuality—only within the confines of a purely homosocial environment," the Indonesian native writes in his program notes of his adolescence in England. "These experiences connected me to Kate. I realized that I saw myself in Kate's sense of outsiderness and 'otherness,' and in her remarkable capacity for adaptation and survival."

That's the stated reason, but his further explanation displays disingenuous sexism. Calling Kate's last speech "one of the most symmetrical, beautifully composed pieces of rhetoric in all of Shakespeare," he writes that he has never seen it performed "without irony or subtext. And it isn't ironic. It is the sound of someone who is smooth, composed, and gracefully iambic; not someone putting on a show." I agree with his assessment of the speech, but I have seen it played without irony or subtext: it's a matter of good acting and coming at the piece from a fully realized understanding of the character of Kate in the context of her relationship with Petruchio progressing over the course of the play.

"For me to honor that speech properly, it had to be with a male Kate," Iskandar continues in his program notes. "It seems monstrous to ask a woman to perform it in today's world, but it's a bitter irony that I'm not using women in order to mount a show about a woman's point of view." That noise you hear is my wife and more than half of my readership grinding their teeth. Bitter for whom? Most actresses I know would rather have employment in an Iskandar play than his sympathy for their sensitive feelings.

It gets worse: "Misogyny is not the problem of the woman, but that of the male world that perpetrates it," he writes, being his own perfect example perpetrating subversive misogyny through his all-male casting so as to avoid seeming "monstrous" toward women. Meanwhile, on the stage itself, though he states he wants to get past the gender issues in the play, Iskandar visually displays the play's prevailing misogyny through Loren Shaw's costumes, which are modern with dashes of fancy-dress party fashion, except that most of the men wear codpieces.

I've covered several single-gender Shakespeare productions and written approvingly of some of them because such casting brings a key thematic, historic, or socio-psychological element to the play. What's truly ironic in this Shrew is that the male actors easily pass as women, even when you encounter them in the piazza. Therefore, the physical attributes underneath their dresses matter less than the personalities of the characters wearing those dresses. Thus, on top of his damning assessment of women portrayals—in his apparently limited experience—Iskandar gains nothing by his choice of casting only men (Maulik Pancholy does yeoman's work as Kate, but brings nothing particularly revealing or singular to the role).

As usually happens when a director comes at a Shakespeare play with a preconceived, personal perspective, he or she tends to make hash of the text. This production includes original songs by Duncan Sheik that serve as soliloquies for the characters. I have no issue with inserting contemporary or original music into Shakespeare productions if done judiciously, and one dance sequence I found intriguing shows Petruchio and his house staff keeping Kate awake before she finally resorts to physically beating Petruchio, to which he offers no resistance. My problem in this production's musical insertions is that these numbers are musically and lyrically bland and suffer in performance, either because of the singers themselves or Harman Hall's notoriously problematic sound mixing capabilities. The frequent songs also lengthen the play (it clocks in at three hours, including the intermezzo) though a large portion of the text is cut.

Much of the text is modernized, too. Examples include "Why, there's a wife!" Petruchio saying after Kate's climactic speech, replacing the term "wench"; Bianca's "duty to my elders" becoming "respect my elders"; and when Grumio teases the hungry Kate with, "How say you to a fat tripe finely broiled?" she responds with "Intestines?" before continuing on with Shakespeare's line (perhaps throwing a bone, so to speak, to an audience not familiar with Shakespeare or a universally common culinary dish).

The subplot of Lucentio's secret courting of Bianca with the help of his servants Tranio and Biondello is turned into a love quadrangle. Bianca (Oliver Thornton) is crushing on Biondello (Drew Foster) and also seems to have the hots for Tranio (Matthew Russell). Listed in the cast list under the subheading "The Indigent," Biondello, "a fixer" is equal to Bianca's infatuation, but Tranio (Lucentio's "tutor" rather than servant in this production) has the hots for Lucentio. Lucentio (Telly Leung), though he obviously falls for Bianca—necessary to launch that plot—seems inclined to return Tranio's affections. So the gay guys are tamping down their true sexuality for the sake of social standing, while Bianca likewise foregoes her true feelings for Biondello and Tranio and ill feelings toward the scheming Lucentio. Heavy stuff, but because Shakespeare's text doesn't take us there, we are left with a Sheik-penned explanation as the cast sings, "You can't stop the show. The writer has left the building, the script has been approved, we know who the winner is, and who will lose."

Other psychobabble becomes merely babble as characters' lines are scrambled beyond logic. Bianca's role is inflated beyond recognition, beyond character relevance. Hortensio (Tom Story) is assigned the task of providing the account of Petruchio's and Kate's wedding, but he does so to The Contessa (aka, the Widow, played by Rick Hammerly) just after she buries her husband during an over-extended tableaux. "Why she's a devil, a devil, the devil's dam," The Contessa says, stealing Tranio's line in the original but at least forecasting her own insult of Kate in the play's final scene. Most baffling of all, though, is Kate taking over many of Petruchio's lines in berating the tailor and hat maker. The implication is that she has caught on to Petruchio's game and is now playing along—and yet, we still get the sun-and-moon bit later, as well as Petruchio having Kate greet Vincentio as a fair maiden. "Our purses shall be proud, our garments poor" Petruchio famously tells Kate in a key speech after he has cast away the tailor's gown; Gadiot, however, mixes this line up: "Our garments shall be proud but our purses poor." This could be the actor simply slipping up on this night, or it could be a fashion statement (his old jeans and t-shirt and her ragged dress as "proud"), but I see it as emblematic of a production that has emerged from the director's psychological blender as a bitter, nutrient-free concoction.

Hortensio in long braided coachman's cloak and striped pants and vest, Vincentio in raccoon fur coat and fodora hat with doublebreasted overcoat undertneath, Baptista in gold brocade coat under silver brocaded cloak with feather collar and fancy beret hat, and Lucentio in off-white coat and tails with blue lapels, all holding champagne flutes
The gentlemen in fancy dress and codpieces enjoy the wedding party in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of The Taming of the Shrew. From left, Hortensio (Tom Story), Vincentio (André De Shields), Baptista (Bernard White), and Lucentio (Telly Leung). Photo by Scott Suchman, Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Then there is the matter of Gremio (André De Shields), a cardinal in this production rather than merely a wealthy old man (but still suitor to Bianca). This costuming results in some humorous subtext for Gremio's textual infatuation with devils and fiends. However, the portrayal goes seriously off the tracks only a half-hour into the play when Gremio suffers a prolonged heart attack and expires on stage as both Tranio and Biondello look on either helplessly or unwilling to help. De Shields gives a tour de force performance with this cardiac arrest to the point that it not only inspires extended laughter but applause. As De Shields later plays Vincentio, wouldn't you know it (actually, you are expecting it), he suffers another heart attack when accosted by Tranio pretending to be Lucentio. It's the only full-audience laughter we hear since De Shield's first heart attack. Personally, as my own father died from cardiac arrest two months ago, I don't see much humor in these sequences. Professionally, I see these sequences as instructive of the production's failings when they achieve benchmark laughs and the only applause line while nothing else comes close. And from a Shakespearean perspective, Gremio dying so early—and various other characters taking over the rest of his lines, including Bianca and Kate—is yet another bail-out by the director rather than committed imagination.

Spoiler alert, De Shields' character survives his second cardiac moment. Thank goodness, for not only does he turn in the best performances of this production, he alone brings wonderful Shakespearean textures to his roles. First, along with the previously noted infatuation with devils and dams, his Gremio displays real charm. De Shields returns as Curtis in Petruchio's household, and he plays him with the gravitas of an experienced servant in opposition to the manic antics of Grumio (Gregory Linington). De Shields' portrayal of Vincentio scores most. After an initial surprise at Petruchio's greeting him as a mistress, this Vincentio plays along with Kate's greeting, leading to his calling her "my merry mistress," a compliment that serves as a key turning point in the play for Kate. In any other production, De Shields' version of Vincentio would go far in helping develop the character growth that Kate experiences. Then, in the final banquet scene, De Shields deepens the character of Vincentio further through his reactions, shaking his head knowingly when his son, Lucentio, ups the wager with Petruchio, and nodding his head knowingly while raising his glass to Petruchio's describing his marriage with Kate as "peace…and love, and quiet life."

Kate addresses her famous (and infamous) concluding speech, in turn, to the Widow, to Bianca, and then to her father, Baptista (Bernard White), the last in acknowledgement that she had been a real pain in his ass. Then she joins with the other women in a show of (subjective?) sisterhood. Of Kate's words, Vincentio says to Baptista, "'Tis a good hearing when children are toward." "But a harsh hearing when women are froward," a bitter Lucentio replies instead. Vincentio can only look at his son and shake his head—knowingly.

Eric Minton
May 27, 2016

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