Thursday, November 12, 2009

On with the Shrew

I got to the Actors' Shakespeare Project Taming of the Shrew (at left) rather late, I'm afraid, despite several e-mails imploring me to go. Their story was the usual one: the press was overpraising a less-than-satisfactory ASP rendering, and when was I going to set the record straight? Well, my friends, perhaps due to previous record-straightenings, the good folks at Actors' Shakespeare Project seemed to be unwilling to offer me press tickets, so I was biding my time, as it were. And when I looked over my previous reviews, I almost couldn't blame them; what do they need the one local reviewer who really cares about Shakespeare - and has the time to type up a 2,000-word exegesis of, say, Coriolanus - throwing the book at them?

Well, this time I'm not about to type up an exegesis, because frankly, The Taming of the Shrew may be my least favorite Shakespeare play. People tend to link it with Merchant of Venice, because they're the Bard's two "Politically Incorrect Plays" (somewhat in the mode of the old "Problem Plays"), but to my mind they're inherently different, as Merchant of Venice is a masterpiece crammed with fascinations (even its "anti-Semitism" is a complex, contradictory thing), while Shrew has nothing like the same compensations for its sexism. Which isn't to say it isn't a complex and self-aware piece of work, and of course beyond the capability of almost any other dramatist. It's just that by Shakespeare's standards, much of it is hackwork: there's verse but little poetry, and a good deal of the comedy feels over-complicated and forced; it often seems like a brilliant re-working of some crude crowd-pleaser.

Although let me say right now that I'm not one of those whose admiration for Shakespeare is founded on a belief in his utter perfection and omniscience as a person. Indeed, what makes the Shakespearean canon unique is the extent to which it has transcended, and perhaps even contradicted, the personality and politics of its maker. The Merchant of Venice, for instance, while undeniably anti-Semitic, is also probably ground zero for anti-anti-Semitism in English culture. Likewise, Taming of the Shrew contradicts the essential arc of Shakespearean comedy, which is overwhelmingly feminist.

And something else about Shrew rankles, where Merchant doesn't; it would be hard to argue, for instance, from the evidence of Shylock's character, that Shakespeare was personally anti-Semitic. Yet the Bard's treatment of Kate might lead you to a rather different conclusion about his attitude toward women, or at least toward wives. William Shakespeare was, after all, a man who married young, then lived apart from his wife for something like two decades, and left her his "second-best bed." Are we so surprised, then, that happy marriages are so rarely considered by this supposedly "universal" author? Or that while he had no problem lavishing his talent and generosity on his independent female characters, once they become wives, other impulses seem to kick in? Indeed, Kate's speech on wifely subjugation I think is the longest speech by a woman in all of Shakespeare - and it may come as a shock, but probably only the Macbeths' marriage is pondered as thoroughly by the Bard as Kate and Petruchio's.

Of course then again, only the Macbeths may be happier than Kate and Petruchio. For to those who would deconstruct Shrew into a blueprint for Kate's oppression, Shakespeare has thrown a dramatic curveball (as usual); we can sense that these two are, indeed, a good match, and that yes, Kate is such a boisterous personality, and so prone to contempt for her intimates, that she would never accept a husband who didn't "tame" her in some way or other. In short, she and Petruchio are brawlers who, though made for each other, need some sort of explicit power structure to survive their mutual attraction. Therefore it's no surprise, I think, that Shrew is the bawdiest of Shakespeare's comedies, and audiences have often read its power games as being basically about good sex rather than good politics.

See, now I've gone and written another exegesis. Oh well; back to the ASP. And back to director Melia Bensussen, the local academic (she's chair of the Emerson theatre department) who I felt thoroughly screwed The Merchant of Venice last year, and is back this season to do Kate and Petruchio the same service. Shrew turned out to be less irritating than Merchant, however, because this time around at least Bensussen didn't simply ignore a great deal of the text. Instead, she has augmented the usual playing script with the not-often-seen "induction" to the play. Those who seek to cast Kate's situation as play-acting often rely on this strange little frame, in which a drunken "Christopher Sly" is first tricked into believing he's a wealthy lord, and then in his newfound identity sits down to enjoy a bit of entertainment - which turns out to be The Taming of the Shrew.

The themes of the "induction," of course, are not only attractive as an amelioration of the blunt power rituals of Shrew, but also operate as a kind of post-modern catnip: Sly's "identity" is utterly constructed, and everyone around him is play-acting, therefore the later neanderthal sex contracts are "performed texts," etc., etc.; the whole play is basically one kind of in-joke coiled within another. And like the "edgy" director she is, Bensussen even pulls Sly right up into the "play-within-a-play," in the role of Petruchio (where his fake identity as lord-of-the-manor neatly undercuts his insistence that he's head of the household).

This is all fine as far as it goes - the only problem being that the Christopher Sly induction isn't really integrated into the action of Shrew; indeed, once the "play proper" starts, the script drops Sly entirely, and he never returns. Thus the text is strangely bifurcated; it opens with one set of conventions, then simply shifts to another - i.e., the utterly open and flexible, but basically representational, structure of all Shakespearean comedy.

Ross Bennett Hurwitz made a beautiful, but slightly blah, Bianca.

But Bensussen keeps her conceit going, and going, like some postmodern Energizer Bunny, even though she's forcing it on a text that I'd argue resists it. Indeed, things soon go meta-meta: actors do double and triple duty in multiple roles (some of them attached to "modern" actor identities dreamed up by Bensussen) with costumes and props that jump from one century to another. And as a result, the production is among the least funny Shrews I've ever seen (and this despite a cast with serious comic chops). The show's not exactly bad - it's often slightly amusing, but rarely LOL-funny, largely because with all the role-playing and "transformations" going on, we can't get a fix on anyone or anything, and the loud, pseudo-lusty tone never seems to vary. As a result, the jokes never get enough breathing room to operate; they're more like indications of jokes than actual gags. After all, it stands to reason that for a transformation to be dramatically effective, it must be surrounded by some form of stability. But this Shrew is basically one long orgy of conflicting signifiers, and even I had trouble keeping track of who was who.

Yet oddly, Bensussen plays the most sexist portions of the play seemingly straight - I guess she imagines all her framing has somehow contextualized the play's content out of existence. Even her most amusing gambit - casting a man (the adorable Ross Bennett Hurwitz) as the beautiful Bianca - doesn't really go anywhere; we get that Bianca is supposed to be a male projection, but the text and the action simply bypass the concept. Strangest of all, after all the jawing in the program about "transformation," Kate's biggest change of all - the moment in which she just rolls with Petruchio's assertion that the sun is the moon - is here rendered rather blankly; we can't understand why Kate is capitulating, and any Shrew worth its whiskers must answer that question, one way or another.

Beyond Hurwitz, the cast is appealing, but somehow undifferentiated. As Petruchio/Sly, company founder Ben Evett had a likable swagger, but didn't seem interested in digging very far into the character's need for sovereignty, and sometimes let little jokes about working-class dudes and their boxer shorts, etc., do his work for him. As Kate, Sarah Newhouse returned his hearty, rough-housing superficiality pretty much blow for blow, although to be fair the pair did strike a few sparks in their big courting scene. Elsewhere, Risher Reddick was fundamentally miscast, and Craig Mathers, so brilliant last spring in Picnic, barely made an impression; meanwhile reliable farceurs, like Steven Barkhimer, Daniel Berger Jones and Michael Forden Walker, were suddenly not so reliable. Only Edward M. Barker came through with a real characterization, I thought, and then only late in the day, and in drag - his Widow was an amusingly common-sensible foil to Petruchio in the play's final scene. But that seemed a long time to wait for somebody worth taming.

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