"Taming of the Shrew," Milwaukee Shakespeare Company
On Saturday, November 19, we went to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Fine Arts Center to see the Milwaukee Shakespeare Company's production of "The Taming of the Shrew." Milwaukee Shakespeare Company is a relatively new group in Milwaukee area professional theatre, being in theit third season. We have heard good things about their productions, and this one intrigued us for a number of reasons. First, I had played in the West Allis Players' production a couple of years ago (as Gremio, Bianca's older suitor). Second, and what was surely a drawing point for many audience members, the show was played with males playing the female roles as in Shakespeare's day, although the actors who played the roles of Kate and Bianca, Michael Gotch and Chase Stoeger, respectively, are not "boys" although they are youngish men as men go. The director, Susan Finque, played with gender roles (and acting roles) in a number of other ways as well. The lone female in the cast, Miki Johnson, stays in character as the boy servant Biondello all through the show. Danny Rhodes starts the show as the innkeeper's boy who is dressed as a woman as part of the joke played on Christopher Sly, and gets involved in the play proper as "the Widow," a "genuine" female role like Kate and Bianca.
I was bemused to see that the director said in her interview with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that she had never seen the play performed with the controversial "induction" or framing device, which I found curious since I've seen a couple, including one done by American Players Theatre in the last few years. For those not familar with it, "The Taming of the Shrew" starts with scene in which the beggar, Christopher Sly, is thrown out of an inn at which he has exhausted his welcome, and lies drunk and stuporous in a ditch. Some well-to-do folk come by and decide to have a joke on him, by picking him up, taking him back to the inn and having the unconscious man washed, reclothed, and when he awakes, told that he is in reality a wealthy lord who has recovered from a lengthy bout of insanity in which he believed himself a beggar. The innkeeper's boy is passed off as his lady wife, and aa troupe of players is hired to stage a play supposedly for his entertainment. The play is the "Taming of the Shrew" which most of us know. In many productions, Sly is seated on stage or in a box and comments on the action, which many people find irritating and distracting and hence this framing device is frequently done without. In this production, it was one of the ideas that worked well. Sly, his "wife" and the innkeeper and his men gradually get sucked into the production, so that Sly ends up also acting the part of the Pedant, the innkeeper the part of Vincentio, and the boy the role of the Widow whom Petruchio's friend Hortensio marries. It is great fun to see Sly (who claimed to be an actor) dragged up on stage, given a script, and coached to start acting the part.
Another thing that worked well was to have the actors, as much as could be, suggest an acting style that might be similar to that used in Shakespeare's time: very broad, and strongly accented with postures, gestures, and expressions. It serves to remind us that they are actors playing actors presenting aplay, yet does not detract from the fun.
Matt Daniels, who plays Petruchio the shrew-tamer, gave a more sympathetic and low-keyed (mostly) reading of his part, which, particularly in the famous "this is a way to kill a wife with kindness" sollioquy, showed both that he seemed to genuinely care for Kate and that he himself was tired out by his efforts. This was very effective since it followed on a more than usually manic wild-man version of the abortive dining scene.
One bit that I did not think worked well was the characteristion of Gremio as an effeminate fop. One wondered what he wanted Bianca for--. I view Gremio as a basically tough man, an "old Italian fox," who, when he grits to "supposed Lucentio," "May not young men die as well as old?" has some genuine threat in it. There is plenty of humor to be found in Gremio's role without camping it up.
Casting Gotch and Stoeger as Kate and Bianca generally worked. With wigs and smooth makeup, both made passable women--one would not have looked at them twice in the street, although Gotch's angular features would have to be classed as handsome rather than beautiful. The flat-fronted Elisibethan gowns gave them the female shape of the period, with having to resort to "stuffing" of any sort. One clinker was that Gotch made no attempt to feminize his voice when "acting" Kate, although Stoeger did pitch his voice slightly up as "Bianca"--either both should have, or neither should have.
This lead into the major daring directoral decision that did NOT, in my opinion work. (And this was given away in the Journal-Sentinel's pre-opening review, so not a spoiler--). In the final scene, when Petruchio orders Kate to remove her cap and throw it underfoot, the actor instead removes Kate's wig and throws it down. During the remainder of the scene he removes his skirt to reveal the jerkin and breeches in which the actor began the show. When Petruchio ends the play with, "Kiss me, Kate!", the two do not kiss, but end up in a tableau eyeing one another in way that raises more questions than answers.
In her interview with the Journal-Sentinel, director Finque said that having males playing females is the only way she could make sense of the play.
' "This is the only way I can make sense of the play," the director said, adding that the classic loses its misogynistic edge when men are in all of the principal roles. "It helped me understand the meaning of the play.
"I don't think Shakespeare wrote a misogynistic play, a play to put down women. He wrote a play about finding your mate."
It is Finque's view that over the centuries, "Shrew" has become a male vs. female fable rather than a story about strong personalities learning to peacefully co-exist and even love each other.
"But it seems that if you put this in a same-gendered world, the gender is no longer meaningful," she said.'
Unfortunately for the concept, I don't think it works at all well: to have the actor playing Kate revert to male persona while delivering the speech that begins: "I am ashamed that women are so simple," underscores in a major fashion that not only is the person speaking the words a man, but that they were written by a man, which tends to ignite misogynism rather than defuse it, and makes Kate out to be a sort of male-operated female ventriloquist's dummy.
All in all, we enjoyed the performance, and found the fresh approaches generally refreshing, but there was just one nifty-seeming idea too many. We are likely to attend future productions by the Company.