Taming of the Shrew (2013)

Please allow me to begin this entry by thanking an Anonymous donor for the amount of $250, which more than doubled our humble budget for this production, and made many more elements in costume and props possible.  Specifically, the gimp mask that Petruchio brazenly wears during the wedding scene, “shame to your estate, an eyesore to our solemn festival,” was something that we planned to build for the show but were then able to purchase outright.  Since our inception as a theatre company, we have been dedicated to minimalism necessitated by the humble budget of underground artist.  We generally are able to indulge in one major piece of spectacle per show, relying heavily on great actors to simply carry the power of the text – yet theatre is ultimately a visual medium and we are so pleased that we were able to successfully incorporate some powerful images in our show through props and costuming.  This company started with a couple of kids performing in basements and parking lots, and we continue to grow and evolve from those roots without betraying the honest intent behind them.

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Matthew Lunt as the Lord, with (right to left) Susannah Corrington, Jack Sharkey, and Lauren Knutsen among the drunken Players.

In writing a postmortem – this organized reflection on the production in retrospect – I am flooded with thoughts that could easily fill a book, yet I intend to present them in this succinct format for our friends and colleagues.  While this was a wonderful and rewarding experience, it was easily the most difficult I have attempted as a director given the source material.  I will expound on that in more detail later, but before that I must thank the wonderful cast that embraced the challenge, made my task a joy, and transcended my hopes for the endeavor:

Kimmy Higginbotham as Bianca
Susannah Corrington as Katharina
Zeke Eastman as Christopher Sly
Matthew Lunt as Gremio
Ellen Dunphy as Grumio
Jack Sharkey as Lucentio
Eric Ryckaert as Hortensio
Lauren Knutsen as Tranio
Colin Fewell* as Petruchio
and
Bohrs Hoff* as Baptista

(* indicates a Blunt Objects Theatre company member)

The show performed at Space Club HQ in Chicago, Illinois on Fridays through Sundays, March 22-31, 2013

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Additional thanks to Ellen Dunphy for the poster design

When I say this was a difficult show to direct, I mean that“The Taming of the Shrew” is one of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays.  For those of you unfamiliar with the play: it is difficult because of the overwhelming misogyny portrayed, though that has not stopped it from being incredibly popular on the modern stage.  The plot involves bachelor, Petruchio, who takes a powerful, independent woman and dominates her through humiliation and sensory deprivation from a wild Kate to a Kate Conformable as other household Kates,” then brings her home where a patriarchal dinner party engages in gambling over the obedience of their wives, it originally concludes with the broken-in Katharina extolling all of the women in the audience to similarly serve their husbands.  It is, to give it a colloquial assessment, fucked up.  Yet it remains one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies.

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Colin Fewell as Petruchio

So the question then becomes, “why is it so popular?”  And the answer seems to lie in the continued chauvinism and misogyny of a Western culture that repeatedly denies that such problems exist, and such deliberate and willful ignorance in turn allows a pervasive, subtle, and therefore more dangerous form of misogyny to persist in a vicious cycle.  This production was in many ways an experiment for me, to see how the text could be elevated in such a way that truly questioned the sort of patriarchy that makes straightforward productions of the text acceptable.  Indeed, the only hope for this play in a straightforward production is the Induction, which is the first few scenes of Taming of the Shrew, that partially frames the entire strange love story as a play within a cruel joke within a play.  It is the same induction that allows some scholars to interpret the play is a parable, a heightened parody of patriarchy in Shakespeare’s time.  But, as I have said before, Shakespeare doth not a feminist make (To sum up those thoughts quickly: Shakespeare writes good women for the same reason he writes good villains; just because he writes compelling characters doesn’t mean that Shakespeare favors their struggles).  Regardless of that argument, the Induction is usually cut from modern productions (because, curiously, Shakespeare’s text never returns to the original narrative, and so is technically not a frame), and therefore has no bearing on the popularity of the play.  If it was a parable in the time it was written, it means something different now, and the mission of our theatre company requires us to explore how a text is relevant now.

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Susannah Corrington as Katharina, in the scene where she meets Petruchio for the first time.

And so I embarked upon a cutting of the script that not only stripped the cast down to ten, but also manipulated the misogynist elements.  The manipulation specifically placed Kate and Petruchio within the context of a BDSM relationship, and twisted the texts abusive scenarios into acts of consensual sexual fetishism.  The text is inherently sexual, so the concept of BDSM naturally heightens an existing motif.  But it also heightened the audience’s awareness of the darker elements, along polarizing lines.  It becomes a comedy of the taboo: encouraging the audience to see the relationship as truly loving and respectful (as I intended to do), or realizing how disturbing the text inherently was (as I believe it is).  What was most exciting for me is that, regardless of one’s opinions on the BDSM lifestyle, the concept was easily supported by the text, and also heightened the audience’s willingness to discuss the play’s events and themes well after the performance ended.

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From left to right: Ellen Dunphy as Grumio, Zeke Eastman as Sly, Matthew Lunt as Vincentio, and Colin Fewell as Petruchio.

What follows is the Director’s Note which appeared on display at Space Club HQ throughout the run:

“About two years ago, I embarked upon what is now Blunt Objects Theatre’s Copyright Free Play Archive, originally just a personal attempt to read all of Shakespeare’s plays.  When it came time to revisit “The Taming of the Shrew,” I genuinely wanted to discover why the play retained relevance.  Part of the answer, of course, lies in the general humor of the writing.  Like “The Merchant of Venice,” another incredibly problematic play of Shakespeare’s, an absurd plot device is supported by memorable characters whose wit and charm nearly let us overlook the grotesque bigotry of the society we are watching.  But as a director and producer, I feel that is not enough.  The social anathema of the culture we see onstage is something that needs to be addressed head-on.  In a post-Holocaust world, it is simply irresponsible to leave the anti-Semitism of “Merchant of Venice” unaddressed.  Similarly, in a world where women’s human rights are continuously challenged, even in the most democratic nation that the world has ever seen, it is irresponsible to let “Taming of the Shrew” play out without recognizing the disturbing nature of Kate and Petruchio’s relationship, as well as the general attitude of the men in the play towards women.  Ultimately, I have tried to find the answer through another question, a major staple of acting techniques: Where is the love?  Why does Kate act upset when Petruchio does not show for the wedding?  Why does she invoke such sexual wordplay when she first meets Petruchio?  Looking at the text as an actor, she needs to feel some sort of genuine affection for Petruchio if a characterization can support the text.

So the highly sexual, sometimes violent relationship between the two leads brought me to the concept of a BDSM relationship.  Beyond recent popular interest in BDSM (which stands for Bondage Domination and Sado-Masochism, and as a term is commonly used to encompass all sexual kinks and fetishes), most recently noted in the success of the “50 Shades of Grey” book series, this production allows Kate and Petruchio to relate to each other romantically in a way that actually makes sense to me without being abusive.  BDSM is a massive umbrella, with innumerable subsets and distinctions.  It is common for the same terms to be used differently among different practitioners of kink, and it can be easy for outsiders and newcomers to be confused or even overwhelmed.  The subset BDSM that I have attempted to portray here is simply two kinky people who experience instant sexual attraction and fall in love.

They are both flawed, as humans always are, and they are both relatively new to the lifestyle they are engaging in together.  Though Petruchio is certainly more experienced than Kate, the relationship he shares with Grumio is evidence that he is still growing and learning about himself, not only as a kinkster but as a human being: And I have thrust myself into this maze, Haply to wive and thrive as best I may: Crowns in my purse I have and goods at home, And so am come abroad to see the world.”  Kate, on the other hand, knows nothing of a formal BDSM lifestyle other than the vague sexual inclinations in her own head.  If she is one thing, she is certain of herself, and as a result she is also horribly misunderstood by the people around her.  In a sense, she has grown so accustomed to this revulsion from her peers that she begins to take pleasure from it.  Though it is not necessarily all sexual – when her father asks why she abuses her sister, “When did she cross thee with a bitter word?” the response is simply, “Her silence flouts me, and I’ll be revenged” – it is a form of sexual expression that becomes apparent when Petruchio orders her to humiliate herself in front of Vincentio, and then again in her infamous final monologue that serves as more of a sexual invitation to her lover than a genuine plea to womankind.  The degradation becomes part of consensual fetishistic sexual play, and the other dinner guests become disturbed by the display for reasons of their own.

Playing opposite this scene is the newly remarried Widow, whom we have conflated with Grumio and embraced as a Dom in her own right, with Hortensio.  Even without the fetish concept, her domination of Petruchio’s old friend Hortensio is meant to be a parallel with Petruchio’s domination of Kate.  Her presence is the key to unlocking the secret of staging that final feared monologue for a modern audience.  Kate’s strong personality in life that becomes submissive in the bedroom has relatively recently been a trope in popular culture, though more surprisingly with men of that inclination: the powerful business executive who enjoys being thrashed by a female Dominatrix.  The cultural problem becomes the association of dominance with masculinity.  Hortensio has every right to enjoy submission in his sexual relationship as Kate does, and yet the patriarchal company of the final scene teases him for it.  But when it comes to who a person choses for a sexual partner, and how they treat each other, I must defer to Petruchio’s words: “If her and I be pleased, what’s that to you?”

So this is my attempt at addressing the problems with this play.  As with any play, I hope it is successful.  But it is bold and it is honest and I am proud of the attempt.  The suggestion that I make, in creating a relationship between Kate and Petruchio that comes from genuine love, is that their sexually charged attraction exists within the subculture of BDSM. In placing these characters in the roles of not simply a Dominant/submissive, but an actual 24/7 Master-slave relationship, the violence and humiliation that occurs is a result of consensual sexual fetishes that both characters are continuing to discover in themselves and with each other.  That is not to say, even within that context, it is a perfect relationship – but conflict is the heart of drama, and within that conflict, I believe we have found the love.

On BDSM:

The following quotes are from Fetlife, a social website that serves people interested in BDSM, fetishism, and kink.  All quotes have been used with permission from the individuals who made the post.

First and foremost, bdsm is a tool for expressing love and respect.

The more challenging and difficult the service rendered, the more love and respect is shown, and the more undeniable that love and respect becomes.

[…] A master must complement and complete the slave. For the slave to give, there must be a master who receives yet never takes.

[…] A master must think of the health of his slave, that she eats well, sleeps well, obtains exercise and pleasure, that her mind is stimulated.

And he must demonstrate his love in other, more direct ways: encouragement, support, acknowledgment of accomplishments and respect for all she does for him. Being open and honest with his affection, not robotic and mechanically heartless or unemotional.

I’ve been asked why more M/Ds don’t see their bdsm the way I described earlier.

Doesn’t it seem more reasonable that a master who treats his slave with love and respect will get better results than one who treats her abusively and without respect?

I agree.

But consider the qualities I’ve described.
Not exactly something one is likely to find very often.

It is much easier to master the skills of the whip and crop than to train heart and soul to be sensitive to the subtleties of nuance, tone and body language.

And flashier at the ‘play parties’.

It is unfortunate that so many see technique trumping the heart and soul of bdsm.

A master is like a dedicated teacher, like a devoted parent. Not just anyone can do this, and most don’t.

For to properly master another a master must master himself. Like any good parent, a master must ignore the dictates of ego so as to shine the limelight on his slave’s accomplishments, to illuminate her contributions to their domestic bliss.

–          Robert Cooper, aka WhenLoveBeckons on Fetlife.com

i strongly believe that bdsm should be distinguished from genuine abuse which is lacking in safety, sanity and consensual agreement between two adults. there is a fine line between abuse and strong bdsm and i would like you to please tread carefully between the two

[…] in a world where sexual violence and abuse is wide spread, there exists a basic problem for bdsm practices which do not have the safe consensual and sane components to it: those who are new or have entered the bdsm community without former or proper safety training may confuse abuse with bdsm practice and may think it is appropriate to act in a way that is abusive…

if you genuinely have been abused (and some people honestly do not know the difference), please seek immediate help from police.

bdsm in depth has many dimensions and complicated concepts which may confuse the newbie or mislead practitioner. therefore, i strongly believe that those who are more experienced and live in honest, loving bdsm relationships should always indicate an aspect in their posts about safety. your relationship with your partner/s in bdsm may have a completely different dynamic than another person’s, and we would greatly appreciated when sharing experiences without the safety component if you indicated why there isn’t one. for example, during a session, if a couple has a master slave relationship instead of D/s, and they know each other and trust each other for a couple of decades, things like safewords may or may not apply as the M may know his/her sub so well that stopping when appropriate simply is instinctual rather than vocal

–          “humble_student” from “Verbal Humiliation, Mental BDSM & Mind Fuck” on Fetlife.com

I think it is more nurture than nature, although it has to come from a very deep place.

I, too, have thought a lot about this, as I am a very strong, independent, professional woman, fully empowered and in charge of most everything. I was raised by a strong, independent, professional woman, who was the daughter of a strong, independent, professional woman (indeed, I am the oldest daughter of an oldest daughter of an oldest daughter — wickedly dominant blood line). However, Gramma and Mum and I were each deeply inculcated, from birth, to believe that while we may be in charge of everything else, a big part of who we are is caring for and pleasing our men. There are different rules at home, and with them than any other time or place. Of course the selection of that man is key — it is not, by any means that we are submissive in general, but to that one, special Love, it is my joy, and my nature to submit.

–          “Sharkhunter” from “Dominance through Love” on Fetlife.com

Director’s Notes (continued):

Another issue that I discovered with this play, in rereading it for the Copyright Free Play Archive (which started as a personal quest to read all of Shakespeare’s plays), is the half-framing narrative of the “Induction.”  Technically speaking, “Taming of the Shrew” is entirely a play-within-a-play, the initial narrative involving a drunkard named Christopher Sly who is tricked into believing that his real life was all one long insane fantasy which he is now suddenly cured of.  However, since Shakespeare never returns to this narrative, deciding to end the play with Kate’s infamous monologue, the Induction is routinely cut from most production.  As a director, I prefer to trust the text.  As a playwright myself, I know there is always a reason for peculiarities in a text.

Cutting the Induction makes even less sense within the original context of the play, since it provides a sort of saving grace for the other problems in the text: the cruel abuse performed upon Kate is mirrored in the abuse performed upon Christopher Sly.  As Kate’s individual personality is snuffed out and overwritten by her abusive husband and materialistic father, so is Sly snuffed out from the narrative entirely.  The Induction of the original play offers an out from the misogyny of the “kind of history” that the players are showing to a battered intellect.  Yet, that also seems like a cop-out, and hardly a strong enough counter to the rest of the text when the abuse of the original text is given so much time onstage.  So while I think it is important to retain the Induction for this play, I don’t think it is enough to merit a production.

John Fletcher, a contemporary and sometimes collaboratorof Shakespeare, actually wrote a proto-feminist sequel to “Taming of the Shrew,” entitled “The Woman’s Prize; or, The Tamer Tamed.”  The existence of such a play in Shakespeare’s own time points to the overwhelming problem that is inherent with “Taming of the Shrew.”  That is to say, it is at base a misogynist piece, and such active hatred of women is problematic when one is attempting to produce a comedy.  So even in the 17th century, as British rule passed back from the matriarchy of Elizabeth to the witch-fearing James (and eventually giving way to the failed Carolinian monarchy and a Puritan police state which lasted from 1649 to 1660), the idea of such a violent relationship was already leaving a bad taste in some folks’ mouths.   The text, as it exists unedited, portrays an abusive relationship where an unruly woman is brutally coaxed into abiding the expectations of a male-dominated society.  It has been a challenge to adapt the relationships so that the relationship becomes healthy, if unorthodox.  I would like to thank my actors for taking up that standard and helping me in that attempt.

In our production, the Induction serves as a sort of foil to the rest of the narrative.  While Kate and Petruchio consensually assume roles in their sexual relationship, the Lord imparts a nonconsensual fantasy role upon Sly in order to subvert his sanity rather than create a mutually fulfilling and growing relationship.  Fantasy and assumed identity is a major motif in the play, with Hortensio, Lucentio, and Tranio all creating new identities to explore opportunity through.  The Induction does serve to enhance this concern for reality versus fantasy, from Sly’s forced identity to the Player’s initial appearance that then gives way to the characters we come to identify with for the rest of the show.

The device of tricking a man to believe that his known life is actually a mad dream is not unique to this play.  A similar trick is actually the central plot point of Calderon de la Barca’s 1635 play “Life is a Dream,” where it’s protagonist famously declares in a fit of existential crisis: “And dreams themselves are merely the dreams of dreams.”  Such concepts were again made popular in the 2010 Oscar-contending film “Inception,” with the philosophical concern of reality and identity stretching as far back as Plato’s “The Republic” (which, in turn, became a significant basis for the 1999 film “The Matrix”)  So, as much as “Taming of the Shrew” demands a greater focus on the romantic relationship between Kate and Petruchio, I was determined to reconcile these oft-deleted scenes with the weight of the  entire play as well.

The result, I hope, is a rich and compelling journey for the audience.  Though the play remains a comedy, the laughter allows us to explore the darker aspects of life and ourselves.  The subculture of BDSM is certainly about exploring the darker and more taboo areas of our own sexual animus, especially when sex of any variety remains a potentially fearful topic in our sometimes restrictive and Puritanical culture.  It allows participants to explore, ideally through a loving and trusted sex partner, the aspects of their own sexuality that might be frightening or uncomfortable to explore otherwise but in a safe environment.  Similarly, theatre (and entertainment of any sort) allows us to explore the darkness of humanity through the safe environment of the play, with the audience experiencing emotions through a world placed before them.  Sexuality, of course, is simply a subset of how humans communicate with each other and understand the world.  It can be hilarious, and it can be scary, but it is in every case relevant.  “The Taming of the Shrew” is easily one of Shakespeare’s most sexually charged plays, and it is essential to indulge that sexuality in this play whether kinky or not.  The Induction, which I’m proud to include in this production, deepens the level of thought and concern with reality that the audience is able to explore beyond sexuality and into human identity and relationships as a whole.

What we have created here is a sexually charged interpretation of Shakespeare’s text, using his poetry in the modern world.  If you are sympathetic to the fetish lifestyle, I feel we have successfully depicted a loving relationship that occupies a specific niche of BDSM – specifically the Master/slave dichotomy and fetishized humiliation.  If such a lifestyle remains alien or uncomfortable to you, I have successfully pushed the issues of this comedy to the forefront  of your mind.  Below either opinion must come the realization that this is all an elaborate hoax played upon the unwitting Sly.  I hope and trust that everyone will be able to walk away from the complex layers of this show with their own insights and revelations about themselves and the society we have portrayed.  I am so pleased with the work I have done with these amazing actors, and proud of the production we have accomplished.  Enjoy!”

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Kimmy Higginbotham as Bianca, with Bohrs Hoff as Baptista and Susannah Corrington as Katharina.

During the run of this show, I received some of the best compliments that a director can receive when helming a Shakespeare play; that is: “I will never be able to see Taming of the Shrew again without thinking of this show.”  Some people were moved by the relationship between Petruchio and the titular Shrew, while others were disturbed by it.  Yet this production pushed the question to the forefront: is this relationship acceptable?  If not, then one must come to terms with its presence in modern society, where the play can be produced straightlaced as a comedy without much opposition as a classic.  If so, it heightens the understanding of our culture where such behavior is seldom perpetrated with respect or love.  The fact is, without framing their relationship within the context of the fetish community, where taboo sexual fantasies may be explored with a trusted sex partner, Kate is being abused by her husband Petruchio.  The BDSM in this show is a concept placed on top of the text, intended to heighten the value of the theatrical experience.  But it is not inherent in the play.  I am so proud that, through this production, we have been able to explore important social issues within our culture for every single audience member.  And I take it to heart that some very trusted friends whose socially conscious opinions I greatly value have told me, “Yes, you created a feminist version of the play.”

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Lauren Knutsen as Tranio, and Matthew Lunt as Gremio.

Of course, the key to any production of this play is how one tackles that final infamous monologue.  I confess, I did cut more than a little of it so that, instead of berating the women of the audience to conform as she has.  Fetish is a very specific lifestyle choice, which is embraced to different degrees by different people, and it was never my intention to end this play with the message that Kate and Petruchio had the one ideal style of relationship.  There are three couples at the end of this play, and each of them have slightly varied dynamics.  An extreme fetish lifestyle is suited to Kate and Petruchio, and the final monologue is a jealous challenge to the authority of another Dom in the room: the Widow who married and now dominates Hortensio.  By putting the kinky sexuality of these two couples so blatantly on display before their friends and family, including the relatively vanilla relationship of Lucentio and Bianca, it rouses the discomfort that the other men in the room onstage can feel.  When Petruchio commands Katharina to tell these headstrong women What duty they do owe their lords and husbands” and “first begin with her,” we never leave the scene with the wives onstage.  Instead, it evolves into a competition between Petruchio’s dominance over Kate and the Widow’s dominance over Hortensio, never demanding that the audience side with them while encouraging them to think about what they see.  The infamous “place your hands below your husband’s foot” line is actually in response to how Hortensio already has his hand beneath the Widow’s boot and is kissing it.

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That fantastic scene where Petruchio is late to his own wedding.

Soon, I hope to return to the Copyright Free Play Archive and uncover more plays of value.  And plays of no value, honestly, are always interesting to talk about too.  But I intend to begin with John Fletcher’s The Tamer Tamed, since the topics of this play remain in my head, even as we move forward in the season here at Blunt Objects Theatre.  Again, this was such an exciting and rewarding project to be involved in, and I want to thank everyone involved, including the audiences.

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(Left to right) Jack Sharkey as Lucentio, Kimmy Higginbotham as Bianca, and Eric Ryckaert as Hortensio.

Stay tuned for more information on the upcoming Achilles, an original play about the Trojan War, spliced together from the works of Shakespeare, Homer, Virgil, Statius, Seneca, and Euripedes.  Andalso, stay tuned for more photos from “Taming of the Shrew.”

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  1. […] Objects Theatre did a really good rendition of Taming of the Shrew in 2013 which you can read about here, but I don’t think we would ever attempt to retrieve any value from this play.  This earns […]



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