Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Taming of the Shrew - Performance Log (June/August 2009)

The Taming of the Shrew
directed by Mishia Edwards
Chameleon Theatre Circle
Logan Park, Minneapolis, MN
June 27, 2009

The Taming of the Shrew
directed by Aimee Bruneau
Seattle Shakespeare Company/Wooden O Productions
Allen York Park, Bonnie Lake, WA
Aug. 2, 2009

1) Country and Western Shakespeare:

Imagine for just a minute that you are from Lubbock, Texas. Born and raised. You have the accent. Say the following:

"What? Will you not suffer me? Nay, now I see – she is your treasure, she must have a husband; I must dance barefoot on her wedding day, and, for your love to her, lead apes in hell. Talk not to me; I will go sit and weep 'til I can find occasion of revenge."

Rolls nicely off the tongue, doesn't it, the western lilt giving a clear rhythm (though not necessarily iambic) to the language. In fact, pull any speech out of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew and see if this accent not only succeeds in negotiating the Shakespearean verse but also lends the speech a certain understandability that recovers both arcane vocabulary and syntax.

This linguistic shift is at the heart of two productions of Taming of the Shrew I saw in parks 2000 miles apart this summer. Mishia Edwards' production in Minnesota sets the play smack dab in the mythical landscape of the American west – cowboy hats and boots, thumbs in jeans pockets, plaid shirts, and even a lariat to capture a wayward filly. But it's not the accoutrements of the western genre that catch one's attention, it's the language. Specifically the marriage of the western twang and Shakespeare's poetry.

The same is true of Aimee Bruneau's Taming of the Shrew in Washington, set in a modern trailer park replete with all the class stereotypes that brings to mind: a barefoot-and-pregnant woman opening the play, staring off to the horizon; a worn Airstream trailer parked to the side, the residence of "wealthy" Mama Baptista and her two daughters; tractor hats and t-shirts advertising "Hooters" and bars; Grumio sporting the camo pants and mesh shirt of a backwoods militia wannabe; Bianca returning home with tiara and sash after winning the "Miss Padua" beauty pageant; Hortensio taking on the mannerisms of an Elvis impersonator to teach Bianca music; and everyone traipsing through their lines with a country accent.

If I enjoyed anything about either of these productions, it was listening to the language. I won't turn this into a treatise on how dialects close to our southern speech have more affinity for British English than the northern ones, nor do I feel up to a meticulous scansion of western and country argots for comparison to Shakespeare's blank verse, although one could certainly look at the lyrical qualities of those dialects. But I sat in these two performances and was struck in both how these dialects drew attention to the language. Each, for example, places a heightened emphasis on certain syllables and words in a way that homogenized mainstream English has forgone. When I teach Shakespeare, I spend very little time on iambic pentameter because I don't want students saying "but SOFT what LIGHT through YONder WINdow BREAKS!" I want them to find the natural meaning in a speech, not get caught up in its rhythmic artifice, as delightful and impressive as it may be.

But with both our stereotypical country and western dialects, one can have the attention to meaning as well as a heightened sense of rhythmic quality. When Petruchio says to Baptista "I am a gentleman of Verona, sir," the standard reading has to work with what to do with the extra syllable, the line's hiccup. But in western dialect, the "of" gets swallowed into the unstressed final syllables of "gentleman" and the lilt pounds out the stressed syllables in VeRONa and SIR: "Ah am a gen'lemenuh Verona, suh." What's also emphasized is the fun, language reshaped to create ambiance, in this case a twang or backwoods articulation that lifts us away from our preconceptions of Shakespeare and recasts setting and character through aural modes without changing much of the text. There were a number of moments in Bruneau's production specifically when I thought, counter-intuitively, "this is the way Shakespeare ought to sound."

2) The Irony of Pop Culture Shakespeare:

Taken further, though, there is a dissonance here, away from the logic of dialect. Americans have a very specific relationship with both the western narrative genre and the trailer trash stereotype. Both representations are examples of low culture, at the opposite end of the spectrum on which we might also locate Shakespeare. The western may be one of the deepest of American mythologies, but it is also the stuff of countless early TV programs, radio shows, comic books, b-movies, and serials, and pulp literary ventures. Most westerns are not so much explorations of who we are, but escapist fantasies reflecting who we want to be – outlaws, noble gunmen, rugged individualists. Edwards' mashing this genre up with Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew makes the same kind of sense that we find in Stanley Donen's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (the lineage of which can be traced back to the classical story of the rape of the Sabine women). Both rely on comic structure, characteristics, and expectations to bridge the gap between their high art source and popular form by connecting the remarkable with the mundane. Watch, in Donen's film, how common frontier labor becomes beautiful choreography while the ageless story of love, courtship, and marriage is lampooned as bride-stealing and shotgun marriages.

So Donen goes both ways on the bridge, one elevating and the other ironizing; Edwards, meanwhile, sticks mostly with the irony. Watching her production, I kept thinking, "does Shakespeare work as a western?" "What do we find in the western genre that elevates our understanding of Shakespeare or Shrew?" In the end I felt the west was just an unusual place for Edwards to locate her Padua, and that the play would have clicked more forcefully embracing the irony. I wanted Hortensio (played by Trish Fike), teaching Bianca music after she's clearly been making eyes at Lucentio, to belt out "Your Cheatin' Heart." I wanted Grumio (James Reijo), placed in the sidekick role here, to milk every Gabby Hayes/Pancho/Tonto stereotype available, and I wanted a Petruchio (Adam Scarpello) cut more from the John Wayne mold, someone whose rough-cut manliness is both repulsive and finally irresistible to his woman. That would explain Kate's arc. That would say that Shakespeare is in control of American archetypes as much as Elizabethan ones.

Bruneau's trailer park Shrew does fully embrace its irony because the white trash/trailer park setting is more derogatory stereotype than pop culture genre, so there's no disguising the fact that we've come a very long way from the Globe Theater. Shakespeare's language tends to lend his characters, no matter how foolish, a sort of nobility. In this Shrew, though, the dialect, as well as the Pabst Blue Ribbon, Hooters t-shirts, and possibility of a Spam dinner for Kate, does the opposite. The effect, at least initially, is sort of like Andy Fickman's She's the Man which resets Twelfth Night in a boy's boarding school and turns its chiaroscuro comedy into mere farce. I worried that Bruneau's embracing of such two-dimensional and negative stereotypes would rob Taming of the Shrew of its opportunity for wit and for our ability to care for characters rather than just laugh at them. Would I be made simply to feel superior to this Shrew's world?

In short, no. Bruneau's directorial choices and some excellent acting on the part of David Quicksall (Petruchio) and Kelly Kitchens (Kate) expose the dishonesty of all stereotypes, that they are a shortcut which impede our ability to see people as they really are – complex, heroic, vulnerable, foolish, disappointed, resilient, etc. This production points out that the idea of a shrew itself is a derogatory stereotype, and beneath it (and the jokes that go with it) is a Kate caught in a disappointing and unfair world with no seeming prospect of escape. Kitchens gives her anger, a sharp tongue, violence, rebelliousness, all as attempts to escape the trailer park vortex. She slams doors. She throws things. She flips the bird. But underneath is someone who wants to be loved, who wants her qualities recognized, who wants happiness.

Similarly, Petruchio's "do what I say woman" attitude is softened as the play progresses. Quicksall's Petruchio wants more than just "to wive it wealthily in Padua," and he seems genuinely frustrated and disappointed by Kate's contrariness. As a result, his actions against Kate that seem so harsh in other productions, become a kind of common-ground seeking, and I had a lot more sympathy for him than I have had before. In addition, Bruneau's deft management of these two complex characters results in the impression, at the end of the play, that they really do love each other. The irony of the setting (can one wive wealthily in this trailer park?) and characters embraced, her production escapes it, escapes farce too, and reminds us of what is best about Shakespeare.

3) When a Man Loves a Woman:

Beyond the irony, one advantage of both the western genre and the trailer park stereotype is that they provide a convenient approach to a significant difficulty one faces guiding Taming of the Shrew through the 21st-century landscape of gender politics. Regardless of how it's handled, I always find myself nervous at the image of Petruchio deprogramming Kate (deprivation of food and sleep used as behavior modification techniques) and downright scared by the impending ugliness of Kate's hand-under-the-boot speech at the end of the play. Placing these two productions in communities that conform to male-superior visions of America smoothes over these rough waters because we accept the gender roles more readily, our modern attitudes defused a bit by generic willing suspension of disbelief. In addition, as a character Kate works to undermine the masculine status quo. Whether we see her rebellion as a failure (Edwards) or not (Bruneau), the outcome in both these shows relies on our acceptance of the narrative in which the productions are framed.

And because these framing narratives, the western and the trailer park, are more intimately familiar to us than some remote Padua and appropriate to the comic dynamics of the play, both Edwards and Bruneau have created productions that promote Shakespeare's comedy into our own culture. I think Bruneau does this more successfully but both shows created an opportunity to rethink Shakespeare in a satisfactory way.

Logged by Randall

Photo credit: David Quicksall as Petruchio and Kelly Kitchens as Kate in Seattle Shakespeare Company/Wooden O Productions' The Taming of the Shrew. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

1 comment:

Seattle Shakespeare Company said...

We're so glad you thought Ms. Bruneau's choice for a trailer park setting for Shrew worked well with Shakespeare's language. It certainly resonated with the crowds this summer. Hope you can join us indoors for Twelfth Night in December.