Six Plays in Eight Days: Saturday – Taming of the Shrew

It has somehow worked out that I will be seeing 6 different Shakespeares this week – two at Shakespeare in High Park by Canadian Stage in Toronto, three via the Teaching Shakespeare School at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario, and one by Shakespeare in the Ruff in Withrow Park, Toronto. I’m crazy excited. Here will I post my thoughts about each of the productions (I in no way suggest this is a review – it’s not).

The Taming of the Shrew, By Canadian Stage at Shakespeare in High Park, Toronto, Ontario

This play has been getting a lot of press, and I’d heard a lot of good things about it before I ventured out to see it. Canadian Stage has been doing Shakespeare in High Park (formerly Dream in High Park – I like the old name better) for many years, and I tend to go every year. I have found their productions to be somewhat uneven – often there has been an actor or two who couldn’t hack projecting in a wide open space, or there were issues with the staging, or just weird or “bad” choices in staging the show that haven’t been well-received. I still go, however, because I love Shakespeare and I think it’s important to support these endeavours.

Canadian Stage has made a few organizational changes this year – you can now book cushions in advance on their website – which gets you into the first few rows at the amphitheatre – and you can pay via debit at the gate. I went old-school and rocked up early-ish (around 18:20) with my picnic in tow, and holy crap, it was half-full already. Good thing we came early.

Another difference this year is that, instead of running one show all summer, they are doing two shows in rep – Shrew and Macbeth. I think this is a good choice, and smart on their part – two reasons to go instead of one, and the Shakespeare nerds like me, will definitely go for both. Also, it affords some choice to the audience: not everyone wants to see a comedy, nor does everyone want to see a tragedy, so now you can do either instead of not going at all. What’s up next year, CanStage – throwing a History into the mix?

So, to the play.

Shrew is a play that is difficult to do in a modern context. It is, in contemporary moral understanding, HORRIFiCALLY sexist: The whole play is based on Petruchio breaking Katherina into submission, as a good wife should. It ends with Kate, completely broken of her spirit, delivering a monologue about a woman’s place, which definitely reflected Elizabethan attitudes towards women in society. It’s a hard one to resolve… Even Merchant of Venice, a play inherently anti-semitic in its tone, or Othello, a play with significant racist overtones, can be reconciled in a contemporary context to highlight and underline why these -isms are inherently bad. In my readings of Shrew, however, I’ve always had a hard time figuring out how to turn the tables on the underlying sexism… How might Katharina use her “taming” to her own advantage, how can it be lessened in impact or changed in intent to make it less… harsh. It’s something I’ve not been able to presonally reconcile.

Canadian Stage did a lovely job of it. One of the things I always appreciate in Canadian Stage’s productions is that they really go out of their way to create fun, inclusive shows. They have always had colourblind casting. They change characters’ genders to suit the needs of the cast (Most notably, a brilliant Prospera preformed by Karen Robinson in The Tempest in 2009). This production was no exception.

Ted Witzel made many bold choices in this show, the least of which was revealed in the opening moments of the play. Choosing to do away with the Induction (thankfully), we begin with the entrance of Lucentio… or at least we should. Instead, we meet Lucentia… I actually had to open up my Kobo app to see who this character was supposed to be. It was a fantastic choice that played out pretty well… the only obvious snag was when Lucentio and Tranio change places, and while you go along with it, the joke of interchangeable men becomes problematic when you have a white woman playing Lucentio and a black man playing Tranio… but still.

It was a very contemporary Shrew, very of the moment. Biondello is a flamboyant personal assistant slinging Starbucks at anyone in his way. Bianca is a Katy Perry-esque candy girl (or Pop Tart, as my friend Dan pointed out). Kate is a punk-rock rebel and Petruchio starts off as a rambling, almost bohemian type with Grumio (also cast with a woman) as an alt-rock character. It all worked deliciously. While some of the transitions were long and tiresome (transitions are the bane of my existence) , the pacing of the show was fantastic, the characters well-developed and compelling, and the story clear. Lots of fun stage combat (which we got to see rehearsed before the show began because, being an open-air theatre, there’s no backstage or “doors-open” time.

My concerns about how this would all fadge, in the end, was quite well-handled. Kate did not become the peevish woman implied by the source text. She maintained her edge to the last, delivering the big monologue in such a way that it was more of an indictment of the whole silly society they lived in rather than of a woman’s place in it. A great choice, in which she does not kiss Petruchio when he bids her “Kiss me, Kate” but instead makes to leave, thereby (somehow) making Petruchio happier seemed to take the edge off Kate’s final defeat – was she finally defeated?

I will admit here that I am, fundamentally, a Shakespeare purist. I believe that Shakespeare’s text speaks for itself, and that our job as modern interpreters is to let them speak. I abhor hearing people saying that we need to make Shakespeare “accessible,” which invariably translates into dumbing it down. At a workshop series I attended at the Stratford Festival a few years back with a group of other teachers, it occurred to us that we hadn’t seen a “traditional” Shakespeare in years.

Des Macanuff, the Artistic Director of Stratford, seemed to encourage this practice, with some success… I remember a brilliant production of Two Gentlemen of Verona set in the world of Vaudeville, which worked so well because the setting didn’t get in the way of the story. That same season, however, a Magritte-inspired As You Like It was, in a word, ridiculous. Design should always serve the story, not the other way round, and when high-concept gets in the way of the story, there is a problem.

This was not one of those cases. This show was “accessible” because it was good. Yes, the costumes and the modern additions (the omni-presence of mobile phones one the stage, the Starbucks, the insertion of modern money) gave it a more contemporary feeling, but the fact that the actors were able to handle the text with ease, and build honest characters was really what made this show work.

I look forward to seeing their MacBeth tonight…

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