What masking stuff is this?
I am at the Utah Shakespeare Festival this week, both for an academic conference and to take in the last season at the Adams Shakespearean Theatre. Construction of a new outdoor playhouse is ongoing across the street to which the dimmers of the Adams will be transferred at the end of the summer. As part of the festival’s agenda to “complete the canon” by staging all of Shakespeare’s works before mounting any restagings, this season features The Taming of the Shrew, King Lear, and 2 Henry IV.
While the production of Shrew is sumptuous and thoughtful, featuring smart and funny performances all across the ensemble, it is a play I must admit makes me uncomfortable in general. Namely this is because of its tacit approval of violence—to spouses as much as the lower classes. As is the norm in staging this play, the Christopher Sly hunting induction has been cut, and so the onus of the production lies on the presumption that Kate needs and will be reformed. This is despite the fact that we only know she needs reform based on rumors and reports from men interested in her younger sister. That Melinda Pfundstein plays a snarky Kate with a smile suggests that she is surrounded by a great deal of false report. And while certainly Kate isn’t innocent—she chases her sister, and ties her up at one point—it is hard to believe she deserves Petruchio’s “taming” program.
Brian Vaughn’s Burtonesque debonair (not to mention that Pfundstein could easily pass as Elizabeth Taylor) as Petrucio seems to excuse him from a great deal of abuse. We meet him beating his manservant soundly, not only punching him in the face, but kicking him in the nethers, and then slamming into a wall several times. He then takes out a bullwhip of all things to demonstrate his marshal prowess. Similarly in the “meet cute” between Petruchio and Kate there is much struggling, holding, and force applied, as indicated by the text. A clever choice by the production was to juxtapose their private behavior with public behavior. At one point when Petruchio threatens to marry Kate by force (with the embedded threat of rape) and has her roughly held, her fathe can be seen opening and looking out a casement from above. Petruchio’s rhetoric immediately depreciates. There is a moment when Kate and Petruchio sit side by side on the stage discussing the merits of “mother wit,” the thing that makes them attracted to one another, before Petruchio again flips, getting on top of Kate and pinning her down physically and verbally. This is not reserved to Petruchio and Kate, however. Bianca’s behavior alone with her sister and in front of their father is drastically different: she goes from a cloying trickster to a bawling babe the moment he appears. Perhaps it is this deceitful behavior by Bianca that the men most fear but map onto Kate.
Because of the physical violence embedded in the text of the play, it is a difficult one to recover. And yet the sparring of Kate and Petruchio, like Beatrice and Benedict, drives us to desire their union. To resolve this, Vaughn, also an artistic director at the festival, builds in moments that code as “true love” to us: his inabiity to speak when he first sees Kate, suggesting love at first sight, and a number of long pauses and looks of intensity that suggest the two see an inner match to the other. These performance choices work to underscore passages like: “thart all is done in reverant care of her…this is the way to kill a wife with kindness.” Violence and love are problematically rolled and collapsed together. The final betting scene is played as a kind of defense of Kate by Petruchio, when the men tease him for marrying the most shrewish women their is—the shrew. His reply, “I say no,” and proposes a wager that works in tis production to defend her public opinion (and by extension, his), rewriting the gossips narrative by force that she is not a shrew of any kind.
In its sumptuous Italianate decor and expert performances, the production works very hard to recover and venerate the passionate mating of Petruchio and Kate. It almost works, it had me up until her final speech. In the moment that Kate tosses her new cap to the floor upon request and sets out her speech that she is but a wek, feeble, and soft woman whose resistance toher husband poorly repays his manly protection of her, I am lost. This may be a problem of periods: this gesture is as incommensurate to 21st-century feminisms as Ray Rice’s punching of his then fiance now wife Janay in an elevator when he thought no one was looking, and then making her appologize for it at a press conference. This may be a problem of cultures: as a modern American woman, my cultural milieu celebrates the strong, independent, individualized female (to a point, at least). It makes me wonder: Is there a place for Shrew in contemporary theatre culture when it seems impossible to save the play from its own agenda of violent censure of women by men.