The Taming of the Shrew at ASF

By on 17 March, 2014 in Fun, Kate and Stephen with 0 Comments

IMG_7064We try to go and see Shakespeare whenever his plays are on the ASF schedule. We love the facility, but we especially love Shakespeare. There’s something very special about seeing his plays performed with lovely sets and costumes in our own city. We were surprised to see Taming of the Shrew on the schedule this year, given the infamous nature of the source material, but we were interested to see what they would make of the play. So, on Friday, we went to see the play’s premier.

To say the source material is troubling is somewhat of an understatement. Read in a straight ahead manner, the play comes across as almost a comedy about domestic abuse. There’s not much funny about sexism, particularly when it involves (spoiler alert!) depriving one’s wife of food, attractive clothing and sleep in order to bend her to your will. It’s about spirit crushing and female submissiveness as the stakes in a bet between men. But this is at the heart of the play, culminating in a notorious monologue about the virtues of subservience to one’s husband. Still, we were hopeful. As ASF often does, they staged the play in another time and place (1950s Hawaii and Alaska), but they kept the script true (mostly) to the original language of The Bard™. This made us think perhaps the production would interpret the words on the page in a new and interesting way, opening critical space around a controversial old text.

As we always say about the ASF, their set and costume design is top of the line. Shrew was no different. The Hawaii set is radiant and tropical, the Alaska set barren and cold. It’s astonishing that the same simple set can flip between beach and polar so seamlessly. They do a great job of maximizing the space and jumping between scenes.

The cast is also very, very good. This is the same cast that’s performing in The Great Gatsby at the theater right now, so we got to see the actors we’d previously seen in a new light. The actress who played Daisy in Gatsby (Jenny Strassburg) disappointed us in that production; here, she really shines as Bianca, the younger sister of the troublesome Katherine. The actor who played Tom Buchanan (Christian Ryan) does an excellent job as a kind of beatnik Lucentio, even though he slips in and out of an accent more reminiscent of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure than anything we know about beatniks or 1950s Hawaii. Anthony Marble brings the same rugged and handsome bravado to Petruchio that he brought to Gatsby. We probably aren’t the first to compare Marble to Jon Hamm, but when vile Petruchio puffs out his chest and swaggers around in a safari hat, you can feel the charisma and charm. He’s an excellent leading man and an adept physical performer too. The segment where he rolls over a desk into a chair, trapping Katherine, is flawless. The bit players also do their jobs with gusto. As a whole, the cast is solid and engaging.

But the core matter of the play remains. It’s a classic tale, one that’s inspired dozens of remakes and permeated unfathomably deep into our cultural memory. Kiss Me Kate? 10 Things I Hate About You? Basically the same story – one that inspired George Bernard Shaw to write, “No man with any decency of feeling can sit [the final act] out in the company of a woman without being extremely ashamed.” There’s loads of cultural criticism written about the play; we won’t rehash it here. Some people say that they have seen productions with a feminist take, or with a winking end. Sadly, here, ASF plays it straight. The play ends with Katherine bending to Petruchio’s will and informing the audience that she is ready to put her hand underneath her husband’s foot. And this is a crushing disappointment. She’s so strong-willed and modern, this character. It’s terrible to see her so clearly converted to submission after what seems to have amounted to extraordinary rendition in Alaska, especially as the whole cast gathers around to sing cheerfully under the bright Pacific sky.

Is Shakespeare winking at us? Is he criticizing gender relations? Is he simply presenting “Life as it is?” That’s pretty much unknowable and irrelevant – after all, “the play’s the thing.” Interpretation is made in the mind of the audience, often with a tangential relationship (if any) to professed authorial intent. So all we can say is what we thought. We were left with the impression that the story told was one of happiness found in domestic abuse and subservience. We did not like this telling. We were not alone. The women sitting behind us seemed horrified at Katherine’s submission, muttering and clucking to each other as the second half of the play unfolded. We were further disturbed by the way that it was made pretty, soothing and romantic at the end, as if the characters were being sent off into a Hollywood sunset instead of a lifetime of soul crushing despair. Admittedly, that’s not (usually) how you want to send a paying audience out into the world.

But the cheerful musical farewell left a bad taste in our mouths, especially after being so pleased with the quality of the performances. Perhaps this was the point of the production, to cause us to recoil? If so, mission accomplished. We left finding Katherine’s spiritual defeat as exceptionally hard to stomach in a time where marriage equality is sweeping the nation and all kinds of traditional gender roles are being rethought and reimagined. ASF’s current production seems to directly criticize current events, saying loud and clear that the old ways are best. Setting the play in the 1950s underscores this mirage of domestic tranquility amid male supremacy. This is a dangerous lesson to be teaching, especially to children with fewer critical thinking skills. We usually feel like kids need to be exposed to more Shakespeare. But we left ASF’s version of “Taming of the Shrew” wishing they had chosen a different pedagogical approach.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with two cats, a dog, eten fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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