Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Deeply Disturbing

Director Chris Abraham's production of The Taming of the Shrew is now in previews at Stratford (the production opens officially on June 5). It is looking very polished already and it is so fresh that it smarts.

The Taming of the Shrew is a difficult play to think about producing nowadays. The story line of how a man goes about taming his unruly wife is not exactly a paragon of gender equality. Chris Abraham is fearless in his handling of this highly problematic text. The director's first recourse is distancing. As the audience files into the theatre, some of the actors, still in their street clothes, are on the stage and chatting to members of the audience. Tom Rooney, who plays Tranio, remarks that he has been performing Shakespeare for years but this is the first time he has done so in Elizabethan dress. The actor who plays Kate is welcomed onstage and introduced by name: "Here comes Deb Hay!" All of this is a reminder to the audience: This is a play.

The action begins with an interruption by "audience member Christopher Sly," who objects to this lack of suspended disbelief. He rails against being shown the visible underpinnings of theatre, noting that he should not be surprised at this, "coming from the director of My Big Fat Gay Wedding," a reference to director Chris Abraham's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, last year (, which was so flamboyantly gay that it would be inconceivable to accuse Abraham of upholding conventional gender roles. The Christopher Sly introduction is Shakespeare's creation, an indication that The Bard himself was aware that he was dealing with some seriously problematic sexism and he would be well advised to prime the audience with a reminder that what is said should not necessarily be taken at face value.

First of all, in the logic of the time in which the play is set, a woman was chattel. She was the negotiable property of her father and husband. Petruchio (Ben Carlson) is broke and he needs a wife who has a substantial dowry. He knows that Katherina (Deborah Hay) is rich and he makes it clear that his intention is to break her headstrong character and enjoy her fortune.

Petruchio gets off to a pretty good start. He is as sharp tongued and quick-witted as Katherina and the two can banter like nobody's business. Kate does appreciate that as quickly as she can deliver her zingers, he comes back with a retort. He does succeed in winning some esteem from her, but that promise of equality crumbles after he marries her (having lied to her father, claiming that she agreed to the marriage). The wedding is a mockery. He shows up late (leaving her to contemplate the possibility that she is being humiliated by being stood up at the altar), wearing a mishmash of odd clothing and riding on a half-dead horse.

Petruchio takes Kate home and implements his plan to break her through starvation, sleep deprivation, forced marches, and being made to wear her wedding dress, the symbol of purity in love, until it is ragged and filthy from being dragged through the mud. These deprivations he enacts "in the name of love," protesting that the food, the bed, the place, the new clothing are "not good enough for her." It is calculated manipulation on his part, and Petruchio voices his protestations violently and irrationally, making Kate doubt his sanity and fear what else he might put her through if she does not acquiesce. So finally, acquiesce she does.

In his plan, even an act of love, a kiss, becomes a form of debasement. Three times in the play, Petruchio asks Kate to kiss him. The first two times, she refuses, explaining that she would be ashamed to do so in the street (proper ladies of the time did not engage is public displays of affection). The third time he asks her to kiss him is at the end of the final scene, following her declaration of submission. In the context of the play, it is the ultimate debasement: she is being made to humiliate herself in front of her father and sister and neighbours.

The ending is dark. This is a Shakespearean comedy, so everyone gets married at the end (Kate and Petruchio, Bianca and Lucentio, the widow and Hortensio) but what kind of contract is this marriage? At the banquet to celebrate the marriages, a test of obedience is set and the women are summoned to come to their husbands. Only Kate obeys, and gives a speech about wifely duty. Petruchio gloats and points to his triumph in taming his wife. The characters onstage listen with astonishment and unease. Kate has entered into Bluebeard's bargain: her husband will care for and protect her so long as she obeys him. If she fails to obey, her very life could be forfeit. She is married to the insane manipulator and she will stay because she has no means to support herself. It is doubtful that her father would step in to help her, having finally married her off to a man who can keep her quiet.

The relationship between Kate and her father Baptista is not discussed at length in the play. Baptista dotes on his younger daughter Bianca, and he is aware that Katherina is a hellion. The unspoken question is what turned Kate into such a hellion in her relations with men? The audience is left to speculate on this. Kate and Bianca's mother is missing from their lives (presumed deceased). Was it the lack of a mother's love and influence that made Kate into what she is, or did something more insidious happen to her? Director Abraham does not explore the implications but allows audience members to ask themselves disturbing questions. The sense of unease is created without being explicit.

This production is conveyed with wit, social commentary, and a profound sense of danger. Laughter at the clever repartee gives way to horror. Petruchio is not a bon vivant, he is a manipulative psychopath. Starvation, sleep deprivation, defilement, public humiliation, and repeated reminders that she is mere chattel… this play is no longer funny and it is a poignant reminder that not that long ago women were not entitled to rights or property. It is deeply disturbing and for all the right reasons.

Saw three more productions during this trip to Stratford.
The Sound of Music. Creative set changes and great singing kept this somewhat wooden production alive. It was fun, it was competent but not surprising.
The Adventures of Pericles (Prince of Tyre). Like Odysseus, Pericles must journey and this production is all over the map: the people of Tyre are in Victorian dress, the people of Tarsus are in Elizabethan dress, the goddess Diana and her acolytes in Ephesus are decked out in some sort white habit that could be from the future or the past. Diana and her gang also act as Greek chorus, narrating where Pericles has landed and what has befallen him on the way. By the end of the play I was exhausted but not because of emotional intensity or engagement. Tyresome.
Hamlet. Passionate, intense, every line was laden with meaning and wordplay. This production deserves a review of its own.