Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Redeeming the Shrew 2016

I've written a bit before about the Taming of the Shrew and how painful it must be for the actors involved to have this fascinating, wild woman find herself "loved" in this suffocating way and then completely submit to her husband's will.  Generally, contemporary productions try to make it clear that Katherine doesn't really mean what she says at the end, but that is a bit of a cop-out and doesn't always translate when in a large venue (such as the Stratford main stage).

I think the closest one can make to "redeeming" the play, while still playing it straight is to have Katherine find herself always the lesser loved child, compared to Bianca, who then ends up locked in a negative spiral of acting out and turning into a shrew.  Petruchio in this telling must genuinely see something in her that is worth valuing (probably her quick wit), and finds himself somewhat in love (and thus not motivated entirely by money).  He holds up a mirror to Katherine and shows her that her stubbornness is childish, and then they move into a more equal relationship.  This still doesn't really redeem the submission speech, however.

Drfitwood is taking a different approach.  First, they are undermining a lot of assumptions about heterosexual love and marriage being the only acceptable way to end a comedy.  Second, they are turning the core relationship into a dom/sub relationship, which is risky but interesting.

At any rate, one of the droller promotional videos I've seen so far from Driftwood is when they ask members of the cast why they should be putting on the Taming of the Shrew in 2016.  They start with crickets chirping...   To be fair, actors mostly are so desperate for work that they will take most parts and worry about the politics of the piece later.  Not in all cases of course.  In any case, they quickly come around to some explanations of why they feel the play is worth putting on today, particularly with the tweaks that the director has made to the play.  The most notable change is that Lucentio is now female and her pursuit of Bianca makes this a lesbian love story.  (Without seeing the play, I can't tell if Bianca identifies as lesbian (or bi) from the start or opens up to this as a new possibility throughout the play itself.  Also, I don't know if all the other suitors are female or only Lucentio.)

The most detailed discussion (so far) about the directorial choices is in this post.

Apparently, in this version, Katherine is one of those bossy types who either secretly longs to dominated or finds out along the way that she likes being submissive.  The second is trickier and gets into the grey areas of consent and whether art should ever show situations where consent isn't explicitly granted.  (Not to set off a total sh**storm, but art is a lot closer to lived reality in recognizing ambiguity and uncertainty around sex than whatever college administrators think should happen in dorm rooms when they mandate the heavy-handed affirmative consent sexual conduct codes that are becoming a "thing" in the United States and most likely here in Toronto.)

Nonetheless, even with Katherine becoming a willing participant in her own domination, Driftwood still has one major problem remaining with the core plot and they have actually opened up another problem around trust.

If one doesn't change the wording, Katherine still hauls her sister and the widow into the room and harangues them with these words: "Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, / Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee..."  It is fine if she makes this choice for herself to act submissive, but what right does she have to impose her own choices on all the other women in the room?  That is no solution to the core problem of The Taming of the Shrew, and I will be very curious to see what they do with it.

But the new issue is trust.  I can't help but have flashbacks to when Ghomeshi was claiming to be part of the BDSM community, and yet he didn't actually get consent from his partners nor did he have a safe word.  At what point does Petruchio give Katherine a safe word?  He does not, of course.  He never gets affirmative consent, and I just don't see how any of these actors can claim that there would be any trust between the two until much, much later, after Katherine has been broken.  And I guess then the relationship gets built back up on a mutually supportive relationship (from a foundation built upon abuse)?  You can see how this remains tricky, and I would be very surprised if Driftwood has truly managed to square the circle and redeem the play.

All that said, The Taming of the Shrew remains an entertaining play with some wicked repartee.  I am particularly interested in seeing how they portray Toronto, circa 1989 (only a few years prior to my first sojourn in town), and can't wait to hear all that great New Wave music that has been promised.  I'm sure I can tell my inner voice to quiet down and stop telling me that I shouldn't be enjoying myself -- at least until the evening is over.

Update (7/21): So I'm back from Driftwood's The Taming of the Shrew.  It was an entertaining version, though I don't feel they resolved any of these issues.  Katherine's speech at the end of the evening is as dreadful as ever.  While the costumes were pretty wild, and this was a high-energy version of the Shrew, I would say they didn't push nearly as far as I thought they would have, particularly after watching the video talking about dom/sub relationships or even Tranio being pan-sexual.  This may well be the actors' motivations, i.e. what they are telling themselves they are up to, but it doesn't really come across.  Could they not have had Tranio try to seduce male and female servants while in the guise of Lucentio?  Aside from some musical cues, I would not register that Katherine was at all feeling anything for Petruchio until late in the play.  (In this case, the actors playing Petruchio and Katherine are also playing Chris Sly (as a dominatrix) and a boy toy in the Prologue.  So one might claim that they just reverse their roles within the play itself, but that is a pretty big stretch.)

Perhaps the biggest issue I had was that it wasn't at all clear when Bianca learned that Lucentio (as the scholar Cambio) was a woman.  It felt like Cambio was played as a male, and there really ought to have been a scene where Lucentio reveals herself both as a suitor and as female, and Bianca takes the plunge.  It just wasn't a big enough deal, and this probably comes down to Driftwood being quite respectful of the text (aside from changing all the place names and substituting bikes, i.e. motorcycles, for horses).  We at least have a scene where Baptista does look angry and horrified when she (another gender flip) finds out about the lesbian elopement, but comes around fairly quickly.  I suppose it should be noted that gay marriage was not legal in Canada in 1989 (and in fact it appears homosexual domestic partnerships were only legalized in 1990), so that's another problem that can't be easily fixed in this approach.

It probably sounds like I didn't have a good time, and that isn't the case, but I do think they could have pushed further, once they chose this approach.  I also think they probably need at least one, perhaps two, more cast members, since the amount of doubling they needed to do was a bit distracting (virtually every cast member plays Gremio at one point or other).  Finally, there was New Wave music, as promised, but this was all sung by the cast, rather than using the recorded versions.   I think it is worth going, but note that this is actually a fairly traditional Shrew despite the Pride trappings.

No comments:

Post a Comment