Over the past week I have been in Louisville, Kentucky, grading AP Literature exams. Just before I dashed off for this epic bout of grading, I had a web post published with City Desk 400: Scholars from 10 Universities Share Their Perspectives. The site is a part of the #shakes400chi initiative, a year-long celebration of Shakespeare and theatre sponsored by the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. They are bringing in a great number of international productions, lectures, and other events elucidating the breadth of responses to and range of engagement with the plays we associate with William Shakespeare.
LILLI: Do you really think I could play the shrew?
FRED: You’d make a perfect shrew!
There are a lot of things to choose from to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare on campus this weekend. There were several events in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library this pastweek, including a puppet show by George Bernard Shaw and a screening of short films about Shakespeare. The library’s exhibit, “‘Oh put me in thy books!’: 400 Years of Shakespeare in Fiction,” is a great way to spend a cool afternoon. There are a number of student productions running, too, including Spoony Bard’s Hamlet and the stellar Cole Porter opera, Kiss, Me Kate. Pitched as a collaboration from all sectors of the university, Kiss Me, Kate is a joyous romp whose classic songs and beautiful dance numbers almost make you forget the level of artistry and craftsmanship on display.
As a musical retelling of Shakespeare’s early comedy, there are two levels to the fiction of the musical. The first is the modern day production company run by Fred (Anson Woodin), the ex-husband of the female lead, Lilli (Ruth Kenney). The friction of their backstage lives spills onstage as they play opposite one another as Petruchio and Katarina. The two transition easily between their two roles, making them distinctive personas with varying degrees of bravado. They seem not only comfortable in the roles and on the enormous stage, but also with Porter’s rollicking post-war sensibility. Woodin as Petruchio delivers especially pleasurable renditions of “So In Love” and “Where is the Life That Late I Led,” while Kenney as Kate balances her songs with impressive vocal runs and spunky licks.
It is a stunning production cap-á-pie. While the theater company is roughly present-day (with some Trump and Cruz jokes put in for good measure), the Shrew production is done as Elizabethan steampunk. Peppered with aviator goggles and geometric embellishment that mimics bodices, leather and ruffs, one could stare at the costumes all evening. They shine against a backdrop of three or four movable pillars that look like the floor of a Dance Dance Revolution unit turned on its side. This makes a kind of allusive sense: as DDR trades on building up familiarity with songs and their moves, so does this musical with some of Porter’s famous tunes, including “Too Darn Hot.”
The charm of Spewack’s book and Porter’s music puts you at ease with this play, and is a great way into Shakespeare for even the most anxious of playgoers. You forget you are watching something we consider “high art” in the twenty-first century, and that is kind of perfect. This play was made for the public playhouses, the open-air amphitheaters where you could munch on peanuts and swill beer throughout. While contemporary theater settings are far from this ambiance, the re-packaging of this low-brow opera recovers some of that everyman quality. In this the steampunk design seems too perfect: both looking backward in time and looking forward to an imaginary future where Shakespeare still survives.