WIL Festival 5.1: “The Taming of the Shrew”

¶ Staging a performance of William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” means managing ethics of conscription and of resistance. The role of Kate is appealing to many because she offers a full-throated and resistant character that third-wave Feminisms connect to, can conscript and inhabit. That is, until the last act and the infamous speech where she encourages the other brides, like herself, to put their hand under their husbands’ feet. How can a production recover Kate from being flattened by what we would now label as Stockholm Syndrome? Need we?

From left: Jessica Hirschhorn (Katherina), and Michael C. Jordan (Patruchio).

Yes—in part because no respectable company has anything to gain from staging misogyny that does not overtly critique itself, and in part because it is important to resist the widespread belief that this was simply “how women were treated back then.” Nope. There was an incredible array of artwork in and previous to the sixteenth century (such as “The Wife of Bath” from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales) that critiqued domestic battery, not to mention actual legislation.

 There are actually three extant versions of “Shrew”: two connected to Shakespeare, and an earlier printing, titled “The Taming of a Shrew,” owned and performed by Chamberlain’s Men before Shakespeare joined the troupe. Critics don’t like to talk about the anonymous “Shrew,” first because it draws our attention to the fact that Shakespeare was likely a reviser first and foremost, and second because, many of the most distinct differences include an increase in misogyny in Shakespeare’s version. (In an episode of OpsCast earlier this year, I discussed this briefly.)

From left: Jessica Hirschhorn (Katherina) and Sullivan Mackintosh (Widdow).

Earlier in the spring, members of OPS Fest’s core company performed the play at the Mission Theatre, followed by an talk-back with the audience using arts therapy methods led by Lauren Saville. Part of the goal was to take the temperature of audiences, to see if there was an ethical way to stage the play so close to the recent Presidential election, which triggered the largest women’s rights marches in U.S. history. Audiences confirmed discomfort but also stated clearly that “Shrew” was worth doing if the company continued to find ways to highlight that which was nefarious. So how did the WIL Fest performance of “Shrew” approach these difficulties in the wake of Billy Bush, Anthony Scaramucci, and President Trump?

Plot

 Baptista’s daughter Bianca is beset with suitors…but can’t marry until after her shrewish sister Katherina. Bianca’s suitors pay the roguish Petruchio to marry Katherina, who works to tame his new wife’s wild tongue. Bianca’s suitors squabble (often in disguise), and Katherina returns to her sister’s wedding a perfect wife. [From the playbill.]

Clever Cues

¶ Brian Burger was prompter today, which was an interesting choice considering he played Petruchio in the the Mission Theatre performance. Perhaps because of the recent, inside knowledge of the play, as well as its comic structure, he cued for improvisation frequently.

PROMPTER: Gremio, what’s your opinion on women’s suffrage?
GREMIO (Keith Cable): I don’t think anyone should have to suffer, except maybe for love.

PROMPTER: Petruchio, give us your thoughts on Title IX.
PETRUCHIO (Michael C. Jordan): I’m not a softball coach; I don’t care.

PROMPTER: [After Hortensio has been beaten with his lute by Katherina “like a solider”] Hortensio, what do you think of the recent transgender military news?
HORTENSIO (Alec Lugo): Why are we having this conversation?!
PROMPTER: Because I said so!
HORTENSIO: [Finds his line and continues the scene anyway without the prompter’s consent.]

All three interruptions used a component of Women’s Rights history to draw out the quality of the misogyny surrounding Katherina. The final one is perhaps the most effectively nefarious. Hortensio (as Cambio) resists the direction of the Prompter, suggesting that he believes the rules of the game (quite literally) don’t apply to him. Is this not the definition of privilege?

From left: Emma Whiteside (Host), Brian Allard (Lord), and Emilie Landmann (Sly).

It would have been interesting to see one of the female characters in the play be asked such a question. One thing I find striking is the utter failure of the female community to support and defend an otherwise motherless, friendless Kate—powerfully suggesting the extent of the effects of patrilineal power. Even the widow (Sullivan Mackintosh), with ostensible economic autonomy, has no support to offer Katherina. She is the selected pariah of the group, off-loading any critique they might receive as a gender scapegoat. Jessie Hirschhorn’s costuming helped remind me of this: in black and deep purple make-up and corsets, including an epic purple high-low wedding dress with full bodice, she coded as “alternative” to, say, the buttoned-up daddy Baptista (Tom Witherspoon). Now that I think of it, to blame other women in a play about the effects of misogyny against one women feels like a dangerous line to toe in and of itself.

Interesting Interruptions

¶ While there were plenty of cued interruptions, one might argue that this play is designed with an interruption already embedded: Christopher Sly (Emilie Landmann). I’m never quite sure if the repugnant Sly, in drawing our attention to the framing device and the fiction that is the play-within-a-play, helps to de/emphasize the play’s view of women. In this case, that the traveling troupe of actors are made much of, working hard to carry their gear and interacting with the Lord (Brian Allard), did shift some of the blame to him: the play is his specific request and intended as a cruel joke on a poor alcoholic. It is a few too many steps removed to be clear in the moment, but it would make sense to argue that, at least in the abstract, the play is a representation of an aristocratic viewpoint in which poors and women alike do not merit compassion.

In keeping with the spirit of the overall approach of OPS Fest, Landmann was not confined to Sly’s scripted interruptions. She sat about two rows deep in the audience, moving occasionally, and interjecting as a second prompter, although in the declaratory rather than in the interrogative. These included:

  • “Take it off!”
  • “There’s a cure for that.”
  • “It’s hard to be a white male.”

I think more of these hyper-gendered shouts would have been useful to offset the overt misogyny being underscored by the cued improvisations on character. By helped, I mean it would have counter-balanced the model of gender-relations being presented. That Sly was played as a dumpster-diving barfly does complicate things, stressing the failure of the female community rather than serving the play’s self-critique.

Keith Cable (Gremio/Nathaniel).

Distilling Dramaturgy

¶ The community that didn’t fail Katherina was the audience. Part of Petruchio’s regimen in his “taming school” is starvation. Throughout the weekend, piles of individually packaged string-cheese was used to stand in for every kind of food required, developing into a running gag that rewarded returner playgoers. That it was used as a substitute for “mutton” was comic on its own—that Kate would fight so for such a little scrap. Because this was a 2PM show, playgoers typically come packing lunches, drinks, and large picnic spreads. At every instance of food deprivation, Kate was given food, particularly grapes, by someone in the audience. If the women fail Kate in the play, the women on the lawn refused to do so. The audience reflected a society that is sensitive to such outcasts now, a society that understands (in some measure, at least) that aiding those without privilege is itself an act of resistance.

 And how did this performance deal with Katherina’s last speech? With hand under foot, Hirschhorn flipped Jordan on his back as a last act of subversion. They both come up laughing, however, and he wins a consensual kiss from her in the end. That final kiss is perhaps more problematic than Katherina’s speech. So very many directors like to interpret this as signaling that these are two outcasts who have come together as a team. Such a reading validates all of the physical and psychological abuse Katherina endures, as well as giving Petruchio a kind of moral “out” by claiming victim-status. Perhaps there is no way around it.

From left: Lissie Lewis (Biondello), Emilie Landmann (Pedant), and Brian Allard (Lord).

Why still do the play? One argument might be that it gives actors opportunities to find strategies to demonstrate what systemic resistance might look like. The most striking and subtle example of this was Biondello, played deadpan by Lissie Lewis. Early on in the Mission Theatre performance, she found a gold mine in a minor flub of Petruchio’s name. When asked by the prompter then, she insisted on never getting his name right, substituting in: Petchuno, Petchulli, Pacino, and Proscutto, among others. Wearing the same dress and effecting the same droll delivery of lists, several of the repeat players could be seen holding back smiles, waiting to see if the re-naming would resurface at Willamette. It did. She never said Petruchio’s name correctly, resisting a sense subservience to a male master.

 Ready for more? Up today, Saturday, 29 July, at Willamette Park:

7:00PM “The Comedie of Errors”

Up tomorrow, Sunday, 30 July, at Willamette Park:

2:00PM “Twelfe Night”
7:00PM “1 Henry IV”

Interested in chatting about anything you read here on the blog or about the shows you are seeing at WIL Fest? Do feel free to come find me and chat! I’ll be in a blue OPS Fest t-shirt, red lawn shirt, taking copious notes! You can also follow along with the hashtags #OnlyAtOPS on Twitter and Instagram.


  • The WIL Festival, presented by the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival, runs 21 July to 6 August 2017. These will be rotation between the Portland parks of Willamette, Irving, and Laurelhurst, so check the online calendar for details.
  • Free and open to the public, a green bucket is passed around after the show for donations. Want to donate online? Contribute to the Indiegogo campaign going on right now, and get some cool swag, too!
  • Note that this is an outdoor performance, so do bring a lawn chair, beach chair, blanket, or other seating option. There is usually ample free parking in the parks themselves, as well as on the street in the nearby neighborhoods. Do watch-out for boats near the river launches.

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